Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Reaching Across the Generations

I have been enormously tardy posting lately as life has been intervening. Between searching for an internship site, preparing for classes, leading two worship services this week, and actually working at my University job, things have been hectic. I've also spent a good deal of time lately talking with my 21-year-old son. Probably the hardest part about parenting is watching your children struggle to find their way in the world. I just want to swoop down and solve every problem and provide every answer. But, I know those are the worst things to do if you want your children to become mature and responsible adults, fully equipped to explore the joy, the angst, and the fulfillment of life.

Like many young adults his age, he is searching for a life path and a career that matches his talents and desires with at least the ability to keep himself reasonably fed and sheltered. One thing he enjoys is poetry. Now, this is one area that I am particularly inept at providing much assistance. I have never been much of a poetry fan - "The Cremation of Sam Magee" is a personal favorite - so I feel relatively useless providing him with much in the way of support. Like me, though, he thinks big and likes to envision art in large scope. His ideas for novels start out as trilogies and his film ideas are 24-hour marathons.

But, I had an idea that combined my love of sermon writing with his poetic muse. I though it would be interesting if we exchanged pieces of our work and then wrote accompanying pieces - he would give me a poem and I would write a homily, and I would give him a sermon and he would write a poem. If we could put together enough examples, I even imagined that this might be something that Skinner House might consider publishing.

So, here is our first crack at this project. We would love to hear any feedback. What did it make you think? Do you like the format? Would you read more?
My Brother’s Dreams
Tyler and Jeff Liebmann

The smooth penetrating glow of your radiant smile
A toothy grin of ambivalence and naivety
I dreamt of you abbreviated brother, pervading my eyes,
shining through the cloudy maze of my thoughts
You hadn’t aged, brown slivery locks danced above your
lids, constantly peering, laughing
Visits have slowed over the years, with each rustling
autumn I wonder, have you forgotten me?
How do you pass the days, slumbering in dark corners
of my mind, tucked away from the harsh reality that
stains the memories
Words spill from your rounded lips, half-phrases of
inequity and longing, muted words of love and
abandonment, long forgotten, dust in a desert wind.

Growing up, I never heard of Unitarian Universalism. And yet, my parents possessed a streak of religious nonconformity we often brandish with great pride. My parents were Christian, but they each assumed that label on their own terms.

For instance, my mother was raised Methodist in Moundsville, West Virginia – named for a large Adina Indian burial mound in the middle of the town. As a young girl, she once told her minister how she looked forward to going to Heaven so that she could be reunited with her deceased pet dog. The minister informed her (I always imagined in a rather patronizing tone) that her dog would not be waiting for her because there are no animals in Heaven. Without missing a beat, my mother told her minister that if her dog was not in Heaven, then she had no interest in going herself.

When I knew her as an adult, my mother was no shrinking violet. Many was the time she left some store clerk, teacher, or anonymous bureaucrat quaking in their officious shoes. But, I have to really admire the courage of a little girl to challenge the senior ecclesiastical authority in her life on an important point of theology. I take some measure of delight in her raw chutzpah, risking her minister’s vision of eternal hell fire over her love for the family pet. With genes like hers, I suppose it is little wonder that I eventually took the path toward Unitarian Universalist ministry.

This relatively harmless, amusing anecdote lived in our family’s history for decades and, obviously, made an impression on me as well. My mother has been gone for many years now, but her telling of that story lives clearly in my memory. An interesting question, however, is that of all the memories of childhood she could have retained, why would my mother, who lived into her 70's, remember that brief exchange? Of all the folksy wisdom she could pass on to her children, why would that conversation rate consideration?

I believe my mother clung to that story because it represented her most primary belief in the nature of the human soul. My mother clearly felt that Heaven was not merely a Shangri-La of limitless joy and boundless serenity. No, she obviously felt that Heaven is a very personalized paradise populated by all of the dearly departed in a sort of mirror of our Earthly world. To her, Heaven would not be heavenly without her beloved pet, because her dog was an essential component of her life – a life that had earned selection into the Kingdom of God.

Let me carry the Gospel According to Helen one step further. My mother believed that her soul, once shed of its mortal body, would live for eternity in Heaven. Now, animals are not baptized, nor do they make any conscious choice to accept Jesus into their lives. I doubt that she believed animals have souls, per se, so one might ask how her dog would earn entry into the hereafter. Certainly not all animals would be there. If there is a Heaven at all, then surely it is devoid of rats and roaches and rattlesnakes, since they would evoke memories of fear and danger. So, for a particular animal to earn ascension, they must do so by displaying a humanlike devotion, living on even after death as part of the loving memory of the soul of a human being. I imagine that my mother would have agreed that as long as that dog lived on in her memory, even subconsciously, then her Heaven must include that dog.

My mother was no theologian. I am not sure that she could have given you much of an answer if asked to define the human soul. But, she knew what the concept meant to her and that was sufficient. To her, the soul was the immortal essence of each human being. The mind is the seat of thought and reason, but the soul is the seat of understanding and compassion. The mind may be the end result of neural synapses and biochemical reactions. To my mother, the soul was the vessel of the spirit, that divine spark, that piece of God within us. And, upon death, that piece of spirit reunites with God in Heaven.

But, not all of us are so fortunate, as my mother was, to have an unambiguous faith. Very few Unitarian Universalists believe in a continuing, individualized existence after physical death. Even fewer believe in the material existence of places called heaven or hell where one goes after dying. If we believe in the concept at all, we believe that immortality manifests itself in the lives of those we affect during our lifetime and in the legacy we leave when we die.

So what do Unitarian Universalists believe about the human soul? I somehow doubt that you can find any two Unitarian Universalists who will answer that question in quite the same way. To even begin would require a month of Sundays to simply lay the philosophical groundwork. Thinkers of distinguished pedigree have considered the nature of the soul to be one of the most fundamental notions of human existence, worthy of entire careers of contemplation and learned writing.

My mother lives on in my memory. I do not remember her as she would be today, in her mid-80's. I do not remember her as she was when she died, after fighting liver cancer for a year. I remember her mostly as she was during my adolescence, when we talked for hours after school, over the dinner table, or during summer vacations. Ageless. Divorced of static from the distractions of life. She lives in a corner of my mind, tucked away from the harsh reality that stains the memories.

Does some measurable aspect of her actually live on in some tangible way? I doubt it. But, until science determines the nature of memory, how do we define the ripples left in the universal pool by the skipping of our mortal lives? Until science unlocks the mysteries of time and space, who is to say that some flicker of our life light does not continue on in the cloudy maze of thought, perhaps even retaining some mote of consciousness?

I do not believe in heaven or hell, but do take comfort in knowing that my life matters and will matter, even in a small way, after I die. I do not believe that a god imbued me with any special essence. I do think, however, that there exists something more to us than the sum of our molecular composition and collected energies. For now, I am willing to accept the uncertainty of soul and embrace the undetectable influence of others’ souls on my life.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Reclaiming Words

Exploring my religious philosophy with friends recently, I have engaged in the ongoing debate over groups of people reclaiming words once deemed pejorative. For instance, "Unitarian" was originally meant as an insult, yet our religious forebears took ownership of the word. Addressing the Boy Scouts, I commented that the song "Yankee Doodle" was written and sung by the British to mock the bumpkin colonists. In my opinion, if African Americans want to reclaim the n-word, and gays want to reclaim the q-word and women want to reclaim the b-word, then I am all for it. I have always loved the quote from the movie 1776, when Stephen Hopkins from Rhode Island breaks the tie vote allowing the Continental Congress to debate independence by saying, "I've never seen, heard, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn't be talked about. Hell yes, I’m for debating anything!" Well, I have never found a word so inherently harmful that it couldn't be used during intelligent discourse. That does not mean that we must use it, but I reserve for myself and others the right to use it should we choose to do so.

I feel especially possessive about the word "atheist." According to Wikipedia, atheism "originated as a pejorative epithet applied to any person or belief in conflict with established religion." The following citation is used to support this statement.
Drachmann, A. B. (1977 ("an unchanged reprint of the 1922 edition")). Atheism in Pagan Antiquity. Chicago: Ares Publishers. ISBN 0-89005-201-8. “Atheism and atheist are words formed from Greek roots and with Greek derivative endings. Nevertheless they are not Greek; their formation is not consonant with Greek usage. In Greek they said atheos and atheot─ôs; to these the English words ungodly and ungodliness correspond rather closely. In exactly the same way as ungodly, atheos was used as an expression of severe censure and moral condemnation; this use is an old one, and the oldest that can be traced. Not till later do we find it employed to denote a certain philosophical creed.”
I believe it imperative that atheists fully reclaim this word and refute the long held association with amorality, which I would contend is still held by many today.

For me, reclaiming "atheist" looms especially large because I seek to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. I feel a duty to provide other atheists (as well as agnostics or others questioning their theology) with a role model of an atheist who is also religious -- even devoutly religious. I feel an equal duty to help theists understand how someone can live a religious life (and perhaps lead their religious community) whose theology lacks theistic underpinnings. It is important, for instance, for an atheist minister to model respect for and reasonable analysis of others' sacred texts, interpreting the wisdom of those texts removed from the assumption of an anthropomorphic motive force in the universe.

And, I feel an especially enormous duty to our children and youth, growing up in a predominantly theistic cultural paradigm. If you are an adult, do you remember those early teen years when you began to question the wisdom passed on to you from parents and other elders? Imagine being 13 today in America, questioning the existence of God in a community where nearly everyone you know is Christian and in a world where nearly every major religious movement begins with the premise of an omniscient being that will, in most cases, punish you for such thoughts. Young minds need to know that such thoughts are healthy and reasonable. Young people need to know that giving up the notion of god does not mean giving up meaning in life, or the joy of human community. Children and youth need to hear the voices of adults - theist and atheist - unafraid to worship together, focusing the power and love of the human spirit on their thoughts and feelings and actions.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Boy Scouts and the Press

I had my first encounter with the press as a budding minister and, so far, I have to say I'm am very satisfied. Our local scouts hosted their second annual Ten Commandments hike the day after Thanksgiving. A group of 350 scouts, parents, and leaders walked to a number of churches in the local area, stopping at each to hear presentations by representatives of different religious traditions. Presenters included Jews, Catholics, Byzantine Catholics, Baptists, Episcopals, Lutherans, Christian Scientists, Hindus, and Buddhists. At each stop, we were asked to address one of the 10 Commandments and how our religion interpreted that particular rule, as well as briefly discuss our religion.

I was assigned the commandment against taking the Lord's name in vain -- which is enormously ironic since I am particularly fond of swearing. But, I explained that my interpretation of the commandment is that we should not judge or disrespect others vainly in the name of whatever we consider of ultimate importance (referring to Tillich's concept of Ultimate Concern). As an example, I asked the scouts to look at our principles in the hymnal and pointed out our commitment to the democratic process. I said that it would be wrong for me in the name of Democracy to disrespect another person's religion just because its structure was hierarchical.

In describing Unitarian Universalism, I told the scouts that the people they meet in one of our congregations might display a wide range of religious beliefs. I explained that they might find Christians, Jews and Muslims; atheists and agnostics; pagans, wiccans and pantheists; humanists and folks with many other views on the nature of god. Then, I told them that I am an atheist and that I do not believe that atheism and religion are mutually exclusive. That definitely raised a few eyebrows.

Funny, though, was that when the boys asked questions, they were mostly about the church building and our organ. One young man asked if Unitarian Universalists could also belong to another church. I explained that it was common for our families to have one UU parent and one parent of another faith tradition, and that these families often attend services at both churches.

A reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette attended the event. She asked me about the conflict between the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Boy Scouts. I explained my understanding of the situation and added that that conflict at the national level has not yet hurt our relationship with local scouting groups. Needless to say, I was amazed when the article came out the next day how much focused on what I had said. I was even more amazed at how well she quoted me and represented my comments. She not only mentioned my comments on atheism extensively, but also mentioned prominently our church's banner, "Civil Marriage is a Civil Right." So, I was able to address both of the major issues of contention with the Boy Scouts in, I believe, a constructive way.

Of course, it remains to be seen if there will be any follow up on the article or comments from readers. I really hope that some folks will read it and try us out. I particularly hope that some teens who are questioning their religious beliefs will read it and realize that we are there as a noncreedal alternative as they search for truth and meaning in their lives. I know that as a teenager, I would have loved to know an adult I could talk to on these issues.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Atheism and the Destruction of Religion

I recently listened to the latest podcast of the Institute for Humanist Studies' Network News. Noteworthy were several brief interviews with the notable "New Atheists," such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris ( The broadcast focused on comments made by Sam Harris at the Atheist Alliance International annual conference in September, where he told the crowd that they should not identify with the atheist label.

The rationale was perfectly logical (and frankly not a new argument), and reflected my own thoughts about the term for many years. "Atheist" as a word carries an immensely negative connotation, and is really not a particularly valuable label. As Harris pointed out, atheism is not a world view, as is a belief in rationality. Atheism is simply a rejection of an unsubstantiated notion.

What troubled me, however, was not the comments made in response to this argument, but rather a question asked of all three figures and their answers. The interviewer asked whether atheists should pursue the reform of religion or its destruction. Now, obviously, as someone pursuing the life of a minister, the question is at best problematic. My more visceral reaction, though, is one of offense at its simple mindedness and nastiness. My reasons for such a reaction are these:

  1. Contemplating the destruction of organized religion is a waste of time, given that billions of people on this planet support the concept and many of them are willing to kill themselves and others to defend it. As a long-term evolutionary goal of human society, perhaps I would be willing to consider the idea, but it's priority would lag far behind a multitude of more pressing human needs.
  2. Simply discussing the desire to eliminate religion as a "yes/no" question ignores the many positive contributions of religion. One might just as logically argue for the elimination of all government because some politicians are corrupt, all families because of instances of abuse or divorce, and all other forms of human interaction and organization because they produce some negative as well as positive outcomes.
  3. The question assumes that atheism and organized religion are mutually exclusive (an assumption which all three of the speakers appeared to share). This assumption is unwarranted even under the current dominant paradigm of our modern view of the cosmos. There are at least hundreds of thousands of American atheists (many Unitarian Universalists, for instance) who belong to and participate regularly in churches, fellowships, societies, etc.
  4. The assumption is particularly erroneous if one is open to new quantum views of the universe, in which one acknowledges that many fields and forces exist that we do not yet understand, cannot yet quantify, and may well have wide ranging effects on our lives in biological and perhaps spiritual ways (however one chooses to define the term).

Obviously, I have no desire to take on these giants of the movement, who are far more adept at verbal repartee and public debate. I do, however, think it matters when public figures present their views in a cavalier manner that divides potential members of a movement. Atheism has faced this problem for decades, as have humanists. I find this paradox fascinating, given that two billion people are comfortable labeling themselves Christian and another 1.5 billion are comfortable with the term Muslim. Until atheists and humanists even come close to 1% of any nation's populations, how can they ever hope to become the dominant paradigm of thought?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Pizza Polytheism

Pizza in Pittsburgh resembles American politics. You can love Mineo's and hate Vincent's. You can love Vincent's and hate Mineo's. Or you can love one of the multitude of third party candidates who have no chance of ever getting more than a percent or two of the popular vote.

Personally ironic is that I love it as a metaphor, but am wholly monotheistic when it comes to pizza. I not only worship at the altar that is Mineo's, but I am a zealous member of the thick crust double-cheese sect. In 30+ years of eating Mineo's pizza, I am not sure if I have ever even tried any of their other varieties. I suppose one might consider my culinary tastes boring, if not downright dogmatic. I prefer to think of myself as pious (and no, I'm really not trying for an awful pun).

However, since I have adopted the pizzatorium as a reflective metaphor, I find myself straying ever so slightly from the fold. After all, I risk being hypocritical if I preach the value of diversity in pizza only to adhere to a rigid creed in my own dining.

So, at the invitation of a friend, I tried not only a different type of pizza, but a different brand - a double heresy. We went up the street from Mineo's to Aiello's and had a pizza with pepperoni, pineapple, and green pepper. This combination would have revolted me perhaps only a year ago. But, you can be surprised by the directions your spiritual quest can take you.

Now, I'll have to admit that the meal was supplemented by several hours of delightful conversation, which always enhances digestion. That said, the pizza was not bad (it also helped that I had just worked out and was starving). They used canned pineapple, which I love, but not necessarily baked in a pizza. Otherwise the flavorful blend was tasty and spicy.

I suppose that I could now be tempted to engage in a global quest for pizza perfection. But, my pizzatorium is not about seeking out variety for the sake of variety. Frankly, the primary value of the experience was the invitation to try something new and sharing that communion with a friend. That is the real spirit of my muse kennel and pizzatorium.

Do you have a favorite pizza? If so, then the next time you feel inclined to partake, invite a friend to commune with you and experience it together. Perhaps the world is not ready for "Peace Through Pizza," but I can imagine a broad ecumenically Epicurean approach to bridging the gaps between people and even societies.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Bikes and Being

When I was very young, I had a tricycle. I don't really know if I imagine this, but I remember that this was the biggest tricycle around...bigger than any other kid's tricycle. My trike was decked out with a Tigeroo (with the furry tail attached to the back). We lived out in the country on a very busy road, so there were few places to ride. But, I remember that I loved riding that tricycle in our driveway, roaring around like a king of the concrete.

As a young adolescent, I had a two-wheeler with sissy handlebars and a gold banana seat. That was true love. Growing up in Pittsburgh, one learns quickly about hills. I used to walk up about a half mile hill (the bike had one speed - Jeff speed) just to get to this area of streets that was totally flat and I would ride around the blocks for hours. Eventually, I gave my golden stallion to my nephews. But, I never forgot that bike or the countless rides on Osage and Valleyview Drives.

I have not ridden much as an adult. Bicycle riding stopped being fun when it became exercise; it stopped being fun when the seat resembled a medieval torture device; it stopped being fun when it contorted my body into the position of a human torpedo; and it stopped being fun when maintaining a bike became as difficult as maintaining my car. All I should have to worry about is keeping air in the tires and slapping some grease on a chain occasionally -- that's it.

Walking to work today, I passed a bike that gleamed in the morning light, reminding me of my golden beauty of yore. I experienced a nostalgic pang for those days of my youth when riding my bike meant just being alone and thinking. I wasn't burning calories or fine tuning a finely crafted investment. I sat upright in comfort and weaved a path along the cracks in the asphalt under a canopy of elms and buckeye trees.

Riding my bike trained me for managing the rigors of adult life. Whether I am pushing a shopping cart, mowing the grass, or driving down a highway, I can send my mind into that time of simplicity on wheels. Maybe someday, I'll create a park with nothing but winding bike trails and no-speed bikes with sissy handlebars and banana seats for everyone. And Tigeroos, too.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Tilting Your Perspectives

I believe that we all have a muse. A sad reality of "civilized" life, however, is that few of us are ever empowered to embrace our muse and allow its fullest expression. Many people spend their entire lives with their muse locked away in a dusty attic, or secured with heavy chains in a dank basement. But, the funny thing about muses -- no matter how hard we try to suppress them, they still find little ways to make their presence known. One goal of my muse kennel is to bring together those creative forces in all of us that resist the leash and provide a space for them to play.

This week, I worked with the Director of Religious Education at our church on our intergenerational Thanksgiving service coming up in three weeks. I have known Jen for many years and consider her a dear friend. The funny thing is that we have worked together on religious education and youth events for 10 years. We have supported each other as colleagues with a common commitment and passion for Unitarian Universalist children and youth programming. But, I do not recall the two of us ever really creating anything together.

We met a couple of times over meals (muses aren't alone in needing food), hashing ideas back and forth, and generally just letting our muses romp. What a joy! A couple of times, I sat back in my chair and told her just how much fun I was having writing this service together. What happens, of course, is that the more freedom you give your muse, the more energetic it becomes. I left our last meeting buzzing with words and ideas begging to be typed into the computer. I was amazed at how just a slight change in my view of our professional relationship resulted in such a fresh approach to our artistic and spiritual expression.

I am a huge fan of paradigm shifts. But, revolution is not always the answer. We don't always need to tilt at windmills. Sometimes, all our muses ask of us is to tilt our perspectives just a little and approach projects from a different point of view.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Pizzatorium Moment

I don't get many opportunities to wear my kilt, and I could not pass up the chance of being the only Scottish zombie at this past weekend's Pittsburgh Zombie Fest (actually one other young man also came in a kilt and I enjoyed commending him on our spanning the generations of kilt-wearers at the event). The highlight of my weekend occurred during the record-breaking zombie walk Sunday morning. I ran into a young couple dressed as Harry Potter and Hermione Granger. I was busy admiring their excellent costumes and neither of us recognized the other. But, then we realized...I am officiating at their wedding next month!

Of course, I realize the silliness of the whole thing (and I wholeheartedly support a little silliness in everyone's life). But, even in the midst of this bizarre moment among 1,000 shambling undead, entered a ministerial opportunity. A true pizzatorium moment.

I believe that our lives are vectors traveling through space and time, bent and twisted by forces known and unknown in this vast universe. Sometimes, our paths cross in more than passing ways, offering us the opportunity for deep human interactions. These amazing instances of synchronicity are the house specialty of my pizzatorium. I do not ascribe supernatural or mystical origin to these coincidental conjunctures, nor do I ignore their potential for significance.


After about nine straight months, I finally took a Sunday off from church work (well, at least until 5:00 p.m., when I met with our Director of Religious Education about our upcoming intergenerational Thanksgiving service). Why am I still tired Monday morning? Because I spent much of the weekend at the Pittsburgh Zombie Fest! In the picture from the front page of this morning's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, you can just barely see my arm holding up my shillelagh in the lower right corner.

Pittsburgh is the undisputed zombie capitol of the world. Since the filming of Night of the Living Dead back in 1968, Pittsburgh has been famous for great football, being named America's Most Livable City (twice!), and zombies. Last year, the Sunday morning Zombie Walk in 2007 attracted 894 shamblers, setting a Guinness Book of World Records mark (that was actually published in the 2008 edition). Other cities have tried to break our mark over the past year, most recently including Orlando and London. But, no one came close. Yesterday's Zombie Walk smashed our own record, attracting 1,124 of the living dead to Monroeville Mall, site of the filming of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead.

Aside from now being part of a world record, I am so proud of everyone involved in this event, and am delighted to call them friends. For the most part, the entire weekend was planned and executed by a dedicated group of fans (called the Lifeless on the bulletin board of The It's Alive Show broadcast locally on WBGN here in Pittsburgh). The Lifeless consist of an enormously friendly and talented group of folks who come together out of their love of horror movies. We call ourselves the Lifeless because, instead of going out on Saturday nights, we stay at home and watch The It's Alive Show. In addition, the Zombie Fest hosted a number of charity opportunities, from collecting donations to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and Central Blood Bank (of course), a charity auction that raised over $1,000 for Komen for the Cure (breast cancer research), and a booth for the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania.

(I am just under the front of the banner with my left hand holding up the bottom right center)

At the Zombie Ball Saturday night, people from older teens to folks in their sixties came together talking and admiring their costumes. We listened to the music of the Ubangis, the Forbidden 5, the Motorpsychos, and Deathmobile, knowing that music is a universal language that speaks to all ages (even punk and metal). In fact, I would argue that "garage" sounds have a visceral appeal that can appeal to a level we all share (but that is a subject for another posting).

There are many communities that make up our lives. I think all of them have what one might call a "religious" component to them. Our church community obviously represents a gathering with a substantially religious purpose. But, I think even communities like our Lifeless serve a fundamentally religious purpose in our lives. They help bring together diverse people over areas of common interest. They help focus our energies on issues of importance while having a good time in a spirit of fellowship. They provide support for participants in times of stress and turmoil (one of the great benefits of the Internet when people are geographically dispersed). And, they offer opportunities for people to come together and express themselves openly in an atmosphere that is welcoming and respectful.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Wiener Dogs and Polka

Another favorite word of mine is "entendre." A cousin of the pun, another low brow figure of speech, the entendre relies on innuendo (yet another cool word) as a way to to express oneself in a playfully risque manner. Now, appealing to my base sense of humor, while immensely gratifying, is not enough to warrant entry in the pizzatorium. Oh, no. Pizzas are all about combinations of tastes and textures. So, the truly effective double entendre must be couched within a framework of aburdity to merit attention.

We have a radio show here in Pittsburgh every Friday on Carnegie Mellon University's station (WRCT). DJ Zombo, tends to play bizarre and silly music from all eras. A recent favorite is a song called the Wiener Dog Polka. Not only is this a "roll on the floor laughing" piece, loaded with double entendres, but it is performed by a group called Polkacide. Here is where the surreality steps up a notch.

Polkacide (the band's logo is a skull and crossed kielbasas) was originally organized to play a one-night stand for the Deaf Club in San Francisco in 1985. The Deaf Club (an actual club for deaf people) had been hiring punk bands to perform. When it was suggested that some did not want a punk band, founder Ward Abronski, along with his long term girlfriend and Polkacide's first drummer, formed a "really loud polka band" to play. When the gig was cancelled (ironically for noise abatement), Ward realized it was too good of an idea with too many great musicians, to let it die. I love synchronicity.

The challenge, of course, for a minister, especially a somewhat irreverent reverend. Is to find some "appropriate" way to insert such wonderful snippets of human creativity into a sermon. I find such reflections entertaining, as well as challenging. And, no, doing a "Humor in Religion" service doesn't count. That is low hanging fruit.

I have yet to think of a good spot for this little tidbit, yet. But, I firmly believe that every dog has its day (so to speak), so the opportunity will arise sometime. That is one way to get people to read their church newsletters.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Irreverent (but Respectful of Boundaries)

Certain words delight me. They find their way into my speech and writing, partly because they have deep meaning. But, they also usually possess something interesting as words in either a visual or auditory sense. For instance, I love the word "paradigm." Ever since I read Joel Barker's book on the subject years ago, the concept (and that silent 'g') have given me immense joy.

I was reminded of another delightful word recently. In closing an email, a friend signed off with "Yes at times irreverent, but respectful of boundaries." What an absolutely wonderful expression! Of course, now that I travel the path toward a life of ministry, the word "irreverent" has new meaning. How exactly does a minister act irreverently? Can a "reverend" be irreverent?

Well, I certainly intend to explore irreverence as a "reverend" in my ministry. For one, I strongly encourage people to challenge assumptions in their lives and to facilitate paradigm shifts. My most commonly asked question is "Why?" Why do we follow certain rules and behave in certain ways? And, please, never expect me to accept as a valid answer, "Because we have always done it that way," unless you are able to substantiate the tradition with detailed justification.

Another favorite form of irreverence is humor, particularly satire. My ministry is as informed by the "sermons" of George Carlin as it is by any theologian past or present. Humor gives us permission to lower our guard, so that we can examine ourselves safely and with an open spirit. The act of laughing relaxes our bodies and eases tensions that might make us less open to insight and sharing.

Perhaps my favorite form of irreverence is the use of popular culture as religious metaphor. I frequently infuse imagery from movies, television, and so-called "lower" art forms into my sermons. This summer, I delivered a sermon on the Gospel According to Ed Wood, and I am currently writing a paper on Themes of Religious Humanism in the films of George A. Romero. If someone had not already written them, I would have composed religious education curricula on the Simpsons, Star Trek, and Dr. Seuss.

Irreverence, however, should be wielded with a substantial degree of precision. Like any tool in the arsenal of the minister, irreverence can hammer a point home, or smash its intended target indiscriminately. Sometimes, paradigms exist for legitimate reasons. Sometimes, making light of a topic is simply not appropriate. And, sometimes, we need to appeal to a "higher" state of intellect, emotion, and being to achieve a desired affect. So, I shall strive to always maintain a healthy irreverence, while remaining mindful and respectful of boundaries.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

New Orleans Trip: Afterword

The past week seemed to be immensely rewarding for each of the participants. It is hard to assess the impact one short week of effort by our little group had on this city still recovering two years later from the trauma of Katrina. In some ways, our presence alone appeared to have as significant an effect on the residents as did the weeds we pulled, the nails we hammered, or the food we sorted. And, even though we paid Hands On New Orleans for room and board for the week, we brought to the trip additional financial resources by purchasing a good deal of food, drink, and souvenirs, and through charitable donations.

For me, the experience was an interesting contrast of the close quarters and strenuous effort for six days among adults with my many past weekends spent at weekend district youth conferences. As the week progressed, we learned a good deal about each other and many friendships developed. We spent much time in the common lounge area at Hands On talking and sharing. At the same time, the living quarters presented unfamiliar challenges that created moments of modest tension. Living in bunk beds in a room with 8 to 16 people, and sleeping in the Southern heat and humidity, fosters forces that bind folks together in shared intimate exploit, but also produces strains that accentuate the differences that can separate us.

A lesson that this week strongly reinforced for me was the importance of assuming the good intention of others. Affirming and promotion the inherent worth and dignity of every person entails an appreciation of the very different personalities we all possess. When these personalities clash, we can avail ourselves of many tools to resolve conflicts and reunite in common purpose - a caring thought, humor, a gentle touch or a hug. But, most important, I believe, is the discipline of walking in another's shoes just long enough to see the world from their perspective, and hopefully understanding the influences that produced the person as they are today. Just a moment of reflection can help all of us see the basic goodness that lies in each person.

Living in a human society, our lives intersect which each other on a daily basis. At school, at work, and at church, our interactions can create moments of shared joy and wonder. But, crossing paths can also generate friction. When that happens, before we look for the hurtful cause, or the evil in another, it helps to first assume the good intention of others. Finding the good in others may also help us intensify the good within ourselves.

Friday, October 19, 2007

New Orleans Trip: Friday

This was our last work day here in NOLA (New Orleans, La.). Most of the job sites were repeats, including the Live Oak School, Project Lazarus, and the various construction projects. I spent my last day back at Ms. Evelyn's house pulling down plaster and lath. We got the huge timber installed under the sagging corner of the house, so our crew chief was excited.

I do not consider myself a gourmet by any means. In fact, I am really not all that discriminating an eater at all. But, there are some foods that turn me into that drooling vision of Homer Simpson. We ate lunch at Cafe Reconcile again, and today I had the Shrimp Creole, Crawfish Bisque, and chicory coffee. New Orleans deserves to be restored to its original condition if for absolutely no other reason, meals like this.

Tonight, I walked a few miles along St. Charles Avenue to the Camellia Grille. My daughter has been raving about this place for years on her visits. Again, my palate was delighted. They had a chocolate pecan pie. I told the man behind the counter that I do not order pecan pie north of the Mason-Dixon line, because we Northerners just don't know how to make it. He assured me that I would be delighted.

I watched as he cut the slice of pie and inverted in onto the grill. Then he squirted a little butter on the grill and flipped the pie over. After placing it on the plate, he topped it with a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream. Words fail me in describing that experience.

I don't exactly know what makes a memorable experience religious. Perhaps seeing a child's precious stuffed animal atop moldy textbooks in a collapsed elementary school in the Lower Ninth Ward two years after Katrina is a religious experience. Perhaps every experience is religious to some small degree. I am not sure what the percentage must be in order for an experience to be truly described as religious. I think that I have reached a point where any moment in our lives that takes us beyond the normal and routine, and that stimulates our thoughts and emotions, is religious.

Because if God is the ultimate, or the combination of all experience, or the universe, or however one views the concept, then any experience that opens our senses, our hearts, or our minds to something beyond ourselves is placing us in the presence of God. Perhaps thinking of eating a chocolate pecan pie trivializes the nature of experiencing God. I certainly do not intend to do so. I am trying to say that a simple act - feeling a breeze, wading in the surf, watching the first golden rays of sunlight in the morning - can inspire awe, and put one in a state of self awareness and awareness of our connectedness with all of existence.

The potential for such an experience should exist every Sunday morning in worship services. But, we should be on the lookout for these moments all during our hectic lives. Perhaps a truly religious life is one filled with religious experience - some that are life changing epiphanies, and some that waft on the wind like a butterfly.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

New Orleans Trip: Thursday

It was a rainy day here in New Orleans. We had rain storms off and on all day long, so jobs had to move in and out of doors when things got too heavy. We were also joined this morning by 20 or so young people on fall break from college in North Carolina (the two who joined our team were from Chapel Hill and were here for their fifth time).

I was back at Ms. Evelyn Green's house today. Our day started with a good example of redevelopment recycling. Ms. Evelyn's house has one corner that needs jacked up and a major beam replaced due to rot. Our team leader, Dallas, had found a 24 foot long 8"x8" piece of timber on an empty lot and had contacted the owner to get permission to take it. He got permission so long as he took the other pieces (that were not quite as nice). So, we spent an hour or so sawing this huge timber into manageable pieces and getting them back to the house. We spent the rest of the day on a variety of tasks around the house.

Other teams today went to a local school and painted some classrooms; did grounds keeping along streets; laying tile as Ms. Severe's house; and helped Ms. Jessie move into her home. Ms. Jessie's is the first house that will have gone from start to finish with Hands On New Orleans. Dave Whaley in our group did an art project presentation with the AIDS patients in Project Lazarus. Another member of our group, Kathy Gorka, went to a school library in Central City whose students have had little exposure to books and libraries. Kathy worked with the youth at her church to created art supply boxes that arrived here the other day. She will go to the Lower Ninth Ward tomorrow to deliver them to the Martin Luther King Charter School.

Everywhere we go, people ask about us and thank us for taking the time away from our families to help out their city. I think that New Orleanians will one day excel in helping others in need, since they so well understand the value of the services given through the kindness of others. Interestingly, I heard the other day that the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans collected funds recently and sent them to our church in Findlay, Ohio, which suffered huge losses from a flood recently. So, maybe all of this giving and caring is not only contagious, but comes back when you least expect it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

New Orleans Trip: Wednesday

Today was KaBOOM day! Almost all of the Pittsburgh Unitarian Universalist volunteers and friends went to a nearby neighborhood to build a playground (a couple of other folks worked with Greenlight New Orleans, changing light bulbs in homes to bulbs that are more efficient and environmentally sound). We were joined by other volunteers in town and a number of Americorps young adults for a total of 75-100 folks. After breaking up into work groups, we built a wide range of playground apparatus (apparati?), built picnic tables and benches, painted a mural, and moved 180 cubic yards of mulch into the playground area.

KaBOOM is an interesting organization, whose goal is to build great places to play within walking distance of every child. They have built more than 1,300 to date and ours was the 64th built in the Gulf Coast region post-Katrina. The Louisiana Freedmen Develeopment Corporation and Lunchables (which is interesting because we did not receive a lunchables snack for lunch). Coordinating this wide range of activities without any sense of the skill levels of the volunteers is enormously challenging. The process was definitely aided by the pre-training of team leaders (which took place on Monday), who coordinated the many assignments.

It threatened rain all day, and held off until just near the end of the build. But, it lasted only 15 minutes or so, allowing much of the rest of the work to be finished and the ribbon cutting ceremony to take place around 3:15. There were a number of little ones anxious to start playing, but they had to be kept off until the concrete footers dry. The final project included two slides, swings, a rock climbing wall and several hanging bars.

The setting was very logical, with about one dozen new duplexes sharing a back lot in which the playground was located. It is an excellent model for creating neighborhoods and safe places for kids to play.

This heat and humidity are starting to wear my Northerner body down. A couple of times, we have had short rains followed by sun that turned the area into a sauna. I'm not sure I would ever get used to this climate. They are calling for a high of 89 tomorrow (yikes) with more chance of rain.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

You Are a New Orleanian

Tonight, many of the volunteers from Pittsburgh met some of the members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans for dinner. In addition to the fellowship and sharing, we had a presentation by one of the church members on race and class issues and Katrina. Of course, race and class remain (unfortunately) significant factors in the lives and well-being of Americans, which is perhaps no were more apparent than in aftermath of the Katrina tragedy. For instance, the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act currently in Congress lays out the deliberate racist and classist actions of people in authority at the time to shut down quality public housing sites and evict existing tenants after the disaster largely to replace public housing with higher cost housing. Ironically, one of the chief opponents of the bill is Louisiana senator David Vitter. We were urged to join the campaign contacting Senator Vitter's office to ask that he stop his efforts to block the bill.

Reverend Melanie Morel-Ensminger of First UU Church also spoke in response to a question of how we should respond when people ask why New Orleans should be rebuilt given its geographical location and the danger of another devastating storm in the future. Reverend Morel-Ensminger replied that people would not ask this question if San Francisco needed rebuilding, even though it lies on a fault line. She said that people did not ask whether the cities on the Mississippi River flood plain should be rebuilt, even though the flooding of several years ago may well occur again. These questions would not be asked because, in this case, the vast majority of victims were people of color, the poor, and often both.

"You are a New Orleanian," she told us, if you love jazz music, red beans and rice, and the other cultural contributions of New Orleans. You are a New Orleanian if the federal government controls a dam, or bridge, or other piece of critical infrastructure whose failure could cost you your home. She expressed the hope that no one ever experience the displacement and discrimination that many New Orleanians have faced, especially now that in just weeks, FEMA will be shutting down trailer camps, yet again putting low income people on the streets.

You are a New Orleanian if you believe in justice and that our government should protect our rights as home owners and citizens against the legions of the greedy, the narrow minded, and the uncaring. "We don't want your pity," she said. What New Orleanians want is for us to join with them in the fight for justice for all and in recognition of our common desire to live lives of freedom and dignity.

New Orleans Trip: Tuesday

Today, most of the volunteers went to the New Orleans Food Bank. A few returned to the Animal Shelter and some returned to the Lazarus Project working with AIDS patients. Also, the two construction crews at Ms. Evelyn's and Ms. Severe's houses returned to their sites.

I went back to Ms. Evelyn's house today. Some of us helped jack up a corner of the house that was sinking. I worked on exploring the possibility of stripping the paint from the baseboards and doors, in order to restore them to their original condition. This is a long-term job, since there is a huge amount of woodwork to be repaired in the home. Once we can set up the best techniques, then the crew leader can direct future volunteers more effectively.

This brings up an interesting situation with this organization. All of the staff and leaders are young adults, many working through Americorps, and probably all in their 20's. Few of them have extensive construction experience, but they have an unbridled passion to do a good job restoring these homes.

Dallas, our crew chief, is from Portland, Maine. He has a fiction writing degree from Colorado and is an energetic and idealistic young man. He badly wants to not just return Ms. Evelyn to a house, but restore her home to as close to its original condition as possible. Of course, we are doing this with little money, but a lot of labor. So, there are times when we volunteers have suggested want seem to be logical ideas and shortcuts. But, Dallas is undeterred.

The point is that, whoever is right is not important. What matters is that this young man and the dozen or so other young people leading these projects are learning vital skills while performing valuable public services. This experience will make them even more amazing people who I am sure will contribute immensely to society. So, whether they make the decision we older and perhaps more experienced adults would make is less important than the fact that we respect their authority and give our best efforts to help them achieve their goals for their projects.

So, coming to New Orleans is about directly helping victims of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. It is also about training the next generation of citizens in leadership and giving them the confidence to strive for their dreams.

Another important aspect of our trip to New Orleans is infusing our energy and our financial resources into the community. Several of us have reported conversations with local residents thanking us just for being here. Today, our crew ate lunch at Cafe Reconcile, an absolutely fascinating organization in Center City. This five-story building currently is a restaurant where young people learn all of the skills of the hospitality business. In time, the upper floors will be developed into a banquet hall, classrooms, space for entrepreneurial enterprises, and short-term housing for students. The food was amazing - collards, okra, pork chops, crawfish bisque, among other things.

Tomorrow, everyone will be going to the Ka-Boom playground site.

Monday, October 15, 2007

New Orleans Trip: Monday

After breakfast, everyone broke into their work groups. I was part of a group of seven folks working on Ms. Evelyn Green's house in Center City. Ms. Green is a widow and I understand a very prominent person in her neighborhood. During Hurricane Katrina, her roof was damaged and the house sustained a great deal of water damage. By the time she could move back in, water had seeped everywhere and mold was growing.

After hooking up with Hands On New Orleans, crews went into the house and gutted it. All plaster was removed, down to the rafters and joists. Everything was then power washed and treated with mold remover. Now, the crews are working on restoring the inside of this interesting old house, built in the 1890's.

Today, a few of the volunteers worked on creating a window repair space and cataloging all the window parts in the house. Another group demolished a back porch ruined by the storm. We left two of the crew back at based camp to scout out the best prices on specialized equipment that will be needed to finish the outside siding and to research how some of the architectural details can be saved. I worked with one of the crew chiefs building temporary racks to how moldings and trim boards over the next few months.

About midway through the day, a very sharply dressed gentleman approached the house with a photographer. He toured the house and spoke to the workers. As he was leaving, I introduced myself and found out that he was the minister of the nearby church that used to house Hands On New Orleans. The photographer was from the New York Times! When he heard that I was a student minister, he asked if that meant I was a Reverend yet. I said, "Not quite," but I had a feeling that I may wind up in the article as Reverend Liebmann (I hope I don't get in trouble with the powers that be!)

Arriving back at base camp, we joined in the Race for the Showers - a thoroughly primitive display in less than ideal circumstances. Oh, well, what's the point of experience like this if you don't rough it a little? Dinner and the community meeting are in a few minutes. We have heard that a film crew is arriving from the U.K. for some reason. I didn't bargain on becoming world famous for one little week of volunteer work!

Lower Ninth

The experience of driving through the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans yesterday was a sobering one, and many of those in our group were deeply moved. To see what was left of a thriving neighborhood two years after Hurricane Katrina leaves one little hope that this community will ever be reborn again. With their apparent lack of power, and the interests that would like to see the Lower Ninth become an oil refinery or some developer's tax shelter, these people seem to have few advocates to regain the home they once had.

Ironically, the Sunday Times-Picayune carried a New York Times article titled, "Black women face tough choice in Demo primary." If you are a member of a privileged class in America, the article makes for interesting reading. The reporter interviewed African American women in a South Carolina beauty parlor on their views toward Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

"I've got enough black in me to want somebody black to be our president...but I want to be real, too...I fear that they just would kill him, that he wouldn't even have a chance," said Miss Clara, owner of the shop. One way to protect him, she suggested, would be not to vote for him. Black voters have noted that Obama was given Secret Service protection earlier than any presidential candidate except Hillary Clinton, who already had protection as a former president's wife. After seeing the desolation of the Lower Ninth, and countless other examples in American history when the rights of African Americans have been pummeled into the ground, I can easily imagine why Miss Clara might feel protective of Obama.

One can hope that such fears are unfounded and we can all do more to work to improve our society so that the best candidate is elected to the presidency. After all, as one customer of Carries' Magic Touch said, she would probably vote for Obama despite her fears for his safety. "Things happened with presidents in the past, and they weren't African Americans." Maybe if our nation honored this kind of bravery as much as that displayed on the battle field, then the people of the Lower Ninth and similar communities across the country might have one more small reason for hope in the future

Sunday, October 14, 2007

New Orleans Trip: Sunday

Today is our first full day at Hands On New Orleans. It is a rest day, so after breakfast we all headed over to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans. FUUNO is a beautiful facility that suffered from four feet of flooding during Hurricane Katrina and sustained substantial damage. But, the church has bounced back and is now beginning a major capital campaign in concert with two other area UU churches. I had one amusing moment. During the service, I noticed that my hymnal had a large circular imprint on the front cover. Later, I saw the following inscription on the inside front cover. "This hymnal was used to put out an 'out of control' chalice flame Easter Sunday, April 16, 2006." No deep meaning, but it seems somehow appropriate.

After church we returned to "base camp" for lunch and our first community meeting led by the Hands On coordinator Stefanie. There are several jobs we will be working on this week including: construction on two houses; building a community playground through an organization called Ka Boom; helping the Animal Rescue Shelter of New Orleans (the only 'no-kill' shelter in the city); Project Lazarus, which helps AIDS patients; and doing outdoor cleanup and planting work with Groundwork: New Orleans.

After lunch, we piled in the vans to take a tour of the city, especially the most affected areas. The tour consisted of many pages of text carefully prepared by First Church. Eventually, we drove into the Lower Ninth Ward. Watching all of the documentaries did not really prepare me for the desolation. Street after street of what used to be home-lined and tree-lined bustling communities is now just one empty, scrub-filled lot after another. One can literally count on a couple of hands the number of homes that seem to have been repaired completely. Most of the structures still remaining are in various states of disrepair, often with "Do not demolish" spray painted on their sides.

According to the tour, the former residents are besieged on all sides by bureaucracy and a society that has abandoned them. Many home owners (and 68% of the homes in the area were owned by their residents) inherited their houses from parents and never filed official papers regarding the transfers. As a result, home owners unable to prove ownership have been denied compensation or assistance. Also, people whose homes were destroyed and lack the money to rebuild, are being fined by the city if they fail to keep their unusable properties clear of overgrown plants. It doesn't matter that the population of the area probably numbers in the dozens. No matter how one slices it, the injustice looms massive. It was a sobering experience.

As we looked at the infamous levy, we learned that some people have alleged that the levies were blown up. Apparently, many decades ago, the city blew up the levy in the poorer district in order to spare the richer district from flooding. So, the legacy of this colossal act of public ill lives on. It is not hard to imagine why a local resident would believe stories of government corruption and conspiracy, especially as contractors bilk property owners out of money and developers pressure the city to take over via eminent domain.

The rest of the evening, we spent in the world-renowned French Quarter. Anyone who asks why New Orleans should be rebuilt simply needs to go to this one-of-a-kind site.

Tomorrow, the work begins!

Flying to New Orleans

I arrived at the Pittsburgh International Airport two hours early to find it nearly deserted. Saturday night is a great time to fly out. The check-in area was virtually empty of people (except of course for the person ahead of me in line with three boxes of human blood!).

This gives me the opportunity to exercise my right of free speech and express my opinion that the insanity that is airport security should make us ashamed to call ourselves civilized [rank mode on]. I challenge someone to prove that the time and resources expended in this colossally stupid enterprise has actually succeeded in apprehending any credible threat to the public welfare. I accepted this absurdity until the removal of shoes began a few years ago. This endeavor is, in my opinion, the result of unbridled fearmongering...sigh [rant mode off].

Anyway, I arrived at the terminal in time to watch most of the restaurants close their gates; all but McDonald's and TGIFriday's. Not wanting to raise my cholesterol 20 points, I headed for the acronym. Just a word of warning - a half order of potato skins is still HUGE. Ron was a very friendly waiter and extremely attentive. He was disappointed when I told him that I do not fly often. So, if you find yourself eating at Friday's at the airport, ask for Ron.

So, there are 14 of us waiting for the connecting flight to Washington D.C.: 11 men, two women (one wearing sunglasses at night), and a baby of indeterminant gender. The plane is a puddle jumper that seats about 50. Mercedes, the flight attendant, is hilarious. Her's was the first safety speech I have listened to in years.

Dulles International was much busier. I strolled through a couple of shops (Border's carried Newsweek, but not Time - I wonder if that has anything to do with the UUA's national ad campaign? Just kidding). The toy store had one of those bins with annoying wind up toys. One was a chicken that did that inane birdie dance song that is so prevalent at weddings. I told the clerk that if I had to endure that cacophony for an eight-hour day, I would end up on the six o'clock news.

On the flight to New Orleans, I sat next to a nice lady from Myrtle Beach. When she saw me reading The Pipe and Christ, a book about a Jesuit priest and the Lakota Indians, we got to talking about religion. She had heard of Unitarian Universalism, having read a biography of Christopher Reeve. She could not quite understand, though, why anyone would not want to accept the joy of a personal relationship with the Christian God. I suppose I need to get used to those conversations.

We arrived in New Orleans 25 minutes ahead of schedule - amazing! On the cab ride to the Hands On New Orleans site, we passed the Superdome. It immediately brought back memories of the thousands of people stranded there with no facilities and of people dying on the sidewalks outside. It's midnight now and everyone is asleep. So, I'm in an empty room at the end of the hall until tomorrow, when I will move to the men's bunk room.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The UUA and Madison Avenue

The Unitarian Universalist Association's national advertising campaign has begun. Advertising in Time Magazine began with the October 15, 2007 issue and will continue over the next several months with placements such as this UUA print ad (also shown to the left).

According to the UUA's press release, the Religion Pages will offer links to articles and essays authored by Unitarian Universalists on topics including: the relationship between religion and science; the role of religion in American democracy; and religion, morality, and sexuality.

I certainly applaud the goals of the campaign and believe such an effort is long overdue. Our denomination will always debate issues of the relative merits of any continental efforts and their impacts on congregational polity. But, I personally feel that the relative benefits far outweigh the potential harm.

That said, this first print ad even made me cringe just a little. "Is God keeping you from going to church?" I do understand the desire to be catchy, even controversial, in getting the reader's attention. The ad certainly appeals to the atheistic, yet religious person within me. But, I have no doubt that many Unitarian Universalists will see this ad and explode in anger over what they will perceive as an anti-theist tone and the heavy reliance on the term "church."

I will not be one of those criticizing the ad (do not, however, ask me what I think of the new UUA web site, grrrrr). For while I deeply respect those who might find the ad objectionable (and I have no doubt that conversations will continue for many weeks), I will suggest that nearly any attempt to attract broad public interest in Unitarian Universalism in eight words will displease many dedicated UU's. The reality, however, is that we certainly will never get the millions of readers of Time magazine to read Channing's Baltimore Sermon or Ballou's "Treatise on Atonement." Even the text of the seven principles is too long for the average modern attention span. I do not see this as sufficient reason not to produce such a campaign.

We are a tiny denomination - a soft voice amidst a cacophony of shrill shouts. And yet, we have evidence that many people share our religious philosophy, but are simply unaware that we exist. I see no harm in helping people learn that we are here and that we welcome them with open arms; in fact I believe we have a duty to make our presence known. I see no way to make this omelet without breaking eggs.

The key, in my opinion, is to assess the materials and calmly reflect before reacting one way or the other. Then, encourage discussion in your church, congregation, fellowship, society about the issues. Most importantly, now is the time that we should all pay extremely close attention to our visitors. For while we may take issue with this campaign or its specific contents, the result may be to bring people through our doors asking that question that so many of us have asked -- "Where have you people been all my life?"

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Guilty Pleasures

As you know from the title of this erudite journal, pizza is one of my guilty pleasures. You've seen that bumper sticker that says, "A bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work." Well, for me, even a bad pizza is better than good food that is healthy and nutritious. Well, not always, but work with me here.

Anyway, I have an idea for a book that I offer up to anyone who wants to run with it. Just send me an autographed copy or two when it hits the New York Times bestseller list. The title would be simply "Guilty Pleasures," and it would consist of an encyclopedic collection of the guilty pleasures of famous people throughout history. I know I would read it.

Now, we have to be careful about our definitions. A pleasure isn't truly guilty unless it is really bad or potentially harmful for you. So, no altruistic pursuits and no quaint but harmless hobbies. Wouldn't it be awesome to learn that Michaelangelo had tattoos and body piercings; or that Lincoln loved to skinny dip in the Potomac River; or that Confucius slipped risque limericks into the Analects? Of course, the Roman Emperors would have an entire chapter.

None of us are saints. Given that we are human, we will make mistakes and we will engage in behaviors that are risky, possibly harmful, and even potentially dangerous. I think the point is that, since we must engage in these behaviors by our nature, then we should do so with intent and in a way that maximizes our own pleasure and the pleasure of those people important to us. So, when you engage in your guilty pleasure, be creative about it and do it shamelessly. Drink responsibly, laugh heartily, and love relentlessly. Never be ashamed about your passion.


Browsing the latest issue of the Humanist Network News, I found myself browsing an article by Warren Allen Smith. His online encyclopedia of freethinkers, Philosopedia, defines apatheism (a portmanteau of atheism and apathy), as a subset of atheism, when atheism is defined as lack of belief in deities, rather than specific disbelief in deities. "An apatheist (AP-uh-thee-ist) is someone who is not interested in accepting or denying any claims that God, or any other supernatural being, exists or does not exist. In other words, an apatheist is someone who considers the question of the existence of God as neither meaningful nor relevant to human affairs."

I came to atheism after years of reflection and by what seems to me, appropriately, to be a quite evolutionary process. I certainly would say that I possess a lack of belief in deities. I suppose I have yet to consider whether I also possess a specific disbelief in deities. But, just because I do not believe deities exist, nor that any proof of their existence could be offered, I think it would be slightly presumptuous of me to profess a disbelief in deities.

So, the question now is whether or not I consider the existence of God as a meaningful notion or as relevant to human affairs. Let me start simply. The existence of God has no meaning to me. And, I certainly believe that peoples' belief in the existence of God has led to some of the greatest miseries of humanity in the millennia since the inception of civilized society. On the other hand, belief in the existence of God has also created great beauty and motivate some people to incredible acts of generosity, kindness, and courage.

Therefore, I think the more relevant question is, should the existence of God continue to be a meaningful notion? I would answer that question categorically in the affirmative. I believe that humanity has outgrown its continued belief in the existence of God, just as children outgrow their need to believe in many myths and fairy tales to assuage their guilt or ease their fears of the unknown. I believe that a continued belief in the existence of God will eventually lead to more "just" wars with unjust underlying motives professed by preaching hypocrites with sacred texts in one hand and clubs and stock portfolios in the other hand.

Given that no one can wave a magic wand and excise the notion of God from human memory, one must surely admit that the existence of God has been, is today, and will likely continue to be relevant to human affairs. So the question of whether or not it should be relevant is, in my opinion, moot. The answer, therefore, lies in religious education and in the provision of effective affective worship experiences that do not require a believe in God. I have spent many years committed to the education of our youth in the ways of critical thinking and assessment of moral issues based on Unitarian Universalist principles. And, as a developing minister, I am now committing myself to the creation of worship experiences that are effective and that produce in participants an affect that is as powerful, if not more powerful, than that produced by the purveyors of the God myth.

So, am I an apatheist. Not yet and perhaps never. As a minister, I must care about the impact that peoples' belief in the existence of God has on society, and I must respond by offering religious people an atheistic option to pursue their spiritual paths and to share worshipful experiences with others.

Pilgrimage to New Orleans

The weekend has finally arrived for our trip to New Orleans! A group of 30 Unitarian Universalists from Pittsburgh is flying down on Saturday to work for a week with an organization called Hands On New Orleans doing Katrina-related work. We have been planning this trip for almost six months and I can't wait.

The site where we will be staying apparently has a small computer lab, so I will try to post daily site reports with a smattering of my own editorial comments as the week progresses. I am anxious to do my small share to help rebuild the lives and the city of New Orleans. I also welcome the experience of working side by side with my fellow Unitarian Universalists in the frontline of social justice activism.

We certainly owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who helped fund this trip from the churches in the Pittsburgh cluster. I want to thank everyone who attended our Brunch on the Bayou event in August and the Jim Scott benefit concert in September. I also want to thank everyone who donated directly to this fund raising effort. And, a special thanks goes to Michael Miller from the Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills for his magnificent and tireless administration of this trip.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Jena 6 Case and Evolution

As I follow the Jena 6 case, I have come to the conclusion that our news media have displayed ineptitude above and beyond their normal limits. At this point, a reasonable reviewer of the reports of the events that went on in that town has little chance of possessing a complete and factual account. Regardless of the various arguments to the contrary, I am convinced that the malignancy that is our criminal justice system has once again reared its ugly head, displaying its overt racism and classism.

What disturbs me even more, however, is what I perceive to be a growing sentiment - that in time, our justice system with its various appeals and retrials will sort everything out and justice will eventually be served. Perhaps, in my childhood, I might have believed such a fantasy. But, the hard reality is that there still exist too many factions vested in a racist system of law enforcement and in a society that fails to invest in the future of our children regardless of their social status, family background, or ability.

I do not believe we can wait for the laborious process of evolution to eventually produce in this country a legal system that is color blind, or a school funding formula that does not favor the rich. The reality is that evolution consists not only of gradual change and adaptation, but also radical change and mutation. And, since we face forces with powerful resources invested in the status quo. We must be willing to be change agents.

The young men charged in the Jena 6 case are not angels. So what? Neither were their white counterparts who walked away with no charges and no potential for massive prison sentences. This community failed these young people and they should not be held liable. They and their families should not have to sacrifice years of their lives and all of their financial and emotional resources fighting unjust charges. This nation is failing another generation of young people and we should be held liable if we do not advocate for radical change in our legal system, our schools, our taxation practices, and our government funding policies.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Affiliate Status in the UUA reports this week about the ongoing changes in the process of approving organizations for affiliate status in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The article cites folks who have had difficulty with this process and those in the upper echelons of decision making who appear satisfied with these efforts.

As a long-time and active member of one of the many groups now denied affiliate status, I can only report on my perception of this process and its impacts. From my point of view, communication of this process was virtually non-existent. There appeared to be little to no concern for the questions and issues of groups formerly affiliated who would be losing valuable (and perhaps essential) benefits. I worry that this effort, while perhaps guided by totally logical guidelines and solid long-term intentions, will be viewed by many very-committed Unitarian Universalists as uncaring, illogical, and heavy-handed.

Many of the groups losing affiliated status are substantial entities with long histories in our denomination. My little group, Unitarian Universalist Curriculum and Resource Developers (UUCARDS), has a few dozen members and a history dating back only a dozen years or so. And yet, this new process, which provides no replacement for the recognition we received previously, may cripple our little group. At the very least, these changes place enormous additional challenges on the efforts of incredible people whose dedication and contributions to this denomination are huge.

As a future minister, I read the explanations for the changes and can understand, to some degree, the logic for their implementation. At the same time, I hear the voiced pain of those who feel betrayed by a bureaucratic effort into which they had essentially no input and over which any objections were seemingly ignored.

What I take from this unfortunate situation is a renewed appreciation for the impact that even what may seem to be small administrative actions can have, both in an operational sense and an emotional sense, on those invested in a system. I will strive to remember this lesson when I serve my church and participate in management decisions impacting my congregants.

Universalist Weekend

I spent this past weekend as a guest of the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention at the Smithton Unitarian Universalist Church. As I learned when they first contacted me a few months ago, a number of the Universalist state conventions did not dissolve at the time of the merger in 1961, and have continued to operate since that time. At this point, the Pennsylvania Convention includes seven churches covering every corner of the state.

It was a wonderful time and I met some very interesting (and colorful!) folks. It is definitely a small world. One long time participant just finished a term on the Meadville Lombard Theological School Board of Trustees, so we had much to talk about. A few folks were familiar from General Assembly. And, the pianist for the Saturday evening concert and Sunday morning service was someone who used to be friends with my next door neighbor 35 years ago.

Networking is something I've always had to work at. I envy those folks for whom it comes naturally. But, the returns can be very rewarding. Especially in a religious organization, the development of social networks can lead to so many opportunities and inspirations that might not otherwise occur. And, of course, as someone who considers himself a somewhat old school Unitarian atheist humanist, it gave me a great chance to brush up on our Universalist heritage, which is alive and well in Pennsylvania!

Friday, October 5, 2007

Ministers and Film Directors

Watching a documentary on film maker George Romero last night, the thought came to me that, in many ways, movie directors can be a lot like ministers. All of the cast and crew of Romero's production companies praise him: his willingness to listen to any and all ideas from anyone; the way he empowers actors to interpret their roles; and especially his creation of a family atmosphere on the set.

I particularly identify with Romero as an artist. For most of his films, Romero has overseen the creative process from start to finish. He writes the scripts, directs the filming, and then personally edits the final cuts. He even takes part in distribution negotiations, where oftentimes changes can be imposed on a film. I respect Romero's commitment to creating an artistic vision and then fighting passionately for its unspoiled completion.

For instance, distributors wanted to cut a lot of footage from Dawn of the Dead that Romero saw as crucial to the film. So, he and his partners rented a New York theatre for a night and ran their own screening of the film. With a single one-inch ad in the New York Times, the movie showed to a packed house. A distributor who came to see the movie signed a deal on the spot to distribute the film without changes.

I see my ministry much like Romero directs movies. I work to create a vision of ministry and work from start to finish to see that vision realized. But, it's not just my vision. A successful ministry empowers all congregants to contribute and own their religious community. Together, they can resist outside forces to compromise their beliefs or limit their actions.

Lastly, Romero makes horror movies and he definitely wants to scare you. But, every one of his movies also has a very up front socio-political message. Dawn of the Dead, for instance, is a commentary on the corruption of commercialization and how we can become trapped in the pursuit of "things" to the detriment of what really matters in life. My ministry will seek to inspire and motivate. But, underneath that will always lie a core of relevance to social justice and equality, and imperative to bring our religious convictions to action.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


Returning home from the gym last night, I made myself some dinner and sat down to do my homework. I watched George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Really. Actually, this is the second time I watched the movie this week, since I listened to the DVD audio commentary the other night.

Now, you may ask, how in the world is this homework? I am taking a class in Religious Humanism at Meadville Lombard Theological School this coming January. My final project is about Religious Humanist Themes in the Films of George A. Romero. I love being in seminary!

It's actually not all that far-fetched. Romero's films (both the living dead series and his other horror films) are filled with socio-political content and observations on humanity that reflect a humanist perspective. For instance, Romero deconstructs every "monster," removing all supernaturalism. His zombies, vampires, witches, etc. are all products of our modern scientific world. Second, his films frequently deal with morality and the impact of circumstances on people's moral decisions. But, most important, his films always address the importance of community, communication, and altruism in the successful survival of humanity. When the monster wins in a Romero movie, it isn't because the monster is more powerful - it's because the people couldn't stop fighting amongst themselves long enough to battle a common enemy.

So, I am watching each movie twice, once to listen to the audio commentary (they are actually fairly boring) and the second time to glean good material to cite in my paper. Of course, I have already seen all of his movies (some many times). It is great, though, to have an excuse to indulge once more in this guilty pleasure. I am doing my homework...honest!