Monday, October 19, 2009

Trepidation and Trauma

Back on September 6, I was shocked in the pulpit (literally), when my defibrillator fired during the closing hymn. After a serious increase in medication dosage, my ventricular tachycardia seems to be under control. However, the medication does have side effects with which I am learning to cope.

One side effect I did not expect has occurred when I have been in the pulpit since that event. Each time, I have endured 5-10 minutes of cold sweats, high anxiety, and fear that my device was going to be set off once again. I have fought through each instance with deep breathing, some water, and focus.

After sharing my experiences with a colleague and expressing the fear I was feeling about my ability to continue pursuing a life in the pulpit, she suggested that I had in fact suffered a trauma. She offered some ideas about reclaiming my sacred space and regaining some equilibrium in my life.

I found this suggestion incredibly wise and wondered why I had not thought of it myself. Of course, that is perhaps the first quality of trauma – that we can see it in others but rarely in ourselves. Ironically, I have been leading Building Your Own Theology sessions, where we have discussed definitions of words like sin as separation, and evil as that which prevents creativity from occurring. Anyone who has taken Suzy Pangerl’s course in “Evil, Trauma and Ambiguity” at Meadville Lombard Theological School can certainly relate.

A valuable lesson for me in this ordeal has been the reminder of the delicate connection between body and mind, between physical and mental health. I’m not sure all the pills in the world will help me reclaim my pulpit, and spiritual practice alone will not cure the electrical failings of my heart. Like many things in life, I must find a balance if I am to achieve an equilibrium that will sustain my prophetic voice and my passion for ministry.

Trauma comes in many guises in our lives. If you are suffering and pills provide no relief, perhaps this perspective will be useful. And remember that life is too short to let guilt, shame, or inertia prevent you from seeking the happiness and fulfillment you deserve.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Oscar's Muse Burrow

Oscar here, the world's first Unitarian Universalist groundhog. While Jeff is in the other room taking a nap (it was a rough service this morning!), I thought that I would stop in and type hello to all of his loyal readers. A lot of you has asked me, what about Unitarian Universalism appeals to me, that is, as a groundhog? Well, I have to admit a particular fondness for the seventh principle, the one about the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. I mean, it isn't about revering Nature...I am Nature, after all!

But, then, as I see it, we are all part of Nature. And that brings me back to the first principle. the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Now, I'm no Punxatawney Phil-osopher (heh, heh!), but I saw the faces of the people coming out of the Worship Room on Sunday. Many of them looked right into my eyes, shook my paw, and talked to me (I think Jeff was getting just a little jealous). I really felt welcomed by everyone. I felt like a person, which is the way we want all of our visitors to feel.

And, another thing while we're on the topic of "persons." I helped Jeff in the pulpit today while the children were still in the worship service. It did these ol' woodchuck eyes good to see those precious faces and the innocent smiles of those pups looking back at me. The world can be a tough place, so I love talking to the child in all of us on Sunday mornings.

Uh oh, I hear Jeff stirring, so I better sign off for now. TTFN (ta-ta for now!)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Style" Vs. Substance

I have not been home to Pittsburgh for more than two months now, and I could not put it off any longer. I had to get my hair cut (or risk being what my father always referred to as "a sheep-killin' dog). Typical of my neighborhood here in Queens, there is a place just a few blocks away with the familiar spinning barber pole. So, I walked over.

As he began, however, I knew immediately that I was in the hands, not of a barber, but of a stylist. For one, he did not respond to my friendly verbal gestures of conversation. But, no doubt remained as he sped around my head like an Indy pit crew. In those fleeting moments, I wondered if I would emerge looking like Yul Brynner.

After ten minutes, I left the shop. His work was perfectly suitable and reasonably priced. However, I sensed a strange emptiness, as if I had somehow not gotten my money's worth. I felt somehow sad, like an opportunity had been lost.

Now, I have been going to the same barber, Ron, in Pittsburgh for...I don't know...maybe 20 years. I probably know his last name, but somehow it just isn't an important part of our relationship. A haircut at Ron's Barber Shop takes 30 minutes, minimum. For me, add another 10-15 minutes because Ron is the only person I trust with my beard. And, of course, if there are others waiting in the chairs, you can count on spending one or two hours, perhaps more.

What you get in that time, for the same money the stylist charges, is conversation. But, talking with Ron and the other regulars isn't just idle chat about the weather, fishing, high school football, or politics. The time spent in Ron's Barber Shop is time spent among men, being men, talking about men's issues.

Because, as soon as you cross the threshold into Ron's shop, you are clearly entering the domain of men. No decorations, a black and white television (no cable, only rabbit ears), linoleum, a single bathroom (no gender designation needed), the morning paper, and well-thumbed magazines about golf and rifles (with a few comics for the boys, which I donated).

Now, some of you may be thinking that this is a rather old-fashioned notion of manhood, bordering on the macho sexist, or at least insensitive and unenlightened. But, Ron's is not a place of judgment or intolerance. We talk about our families and relationships, but I have not once heard a disparaging remark made about another person based on anything except that person's character or actions. Ron, an unassuming and gentle man, is a Delilah sheering the pretense of bravado and bluster away from dads, mates, brothers, and sons in a bastion of raw, honest maleness.

That is what I missed when I got my hair "styled" this morning. I missed spending time with other men in honest relationship, away from the cares and responsibilities of life for a few moments. I missed experiencing this special type of ministry, a laying on of hands if you will, that leaves one feeling respected and renewed.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Meet Oscar

Last Sunday, I introduced a new friend to my congregation. Being from Western Pennsylvania, home of Punxatawney and Groundhog Day, it was only natural that I meet the world's first Unitarian Universalist groundhog. Please meet Oscar, who you can see here reading his favorite web site. Like me, Oscar is a fan of pizza (veggies only, please). Last Sunday, Oscar helped me tell a story for a Time for All Ages segment, which he would like to also share with our cyber friends.

This is a story about a bunny named Michael. Michael was not quite a grown up rabbit yet. But, the adult rabbits saw that Michael was very smart for a bunny, very creative for such a youngster, and unafraid to share his notions with other rabbits.

Michael lived in a community of rabbits (which is called a warren) on the border between a lovely green meadow and a majestic forest of oaks, elms, and maples. Michael liked his warren, but always sensed that their lives could be better – that perhaps there was more to life than frolicking in the meadow, or munching on wild nuts and berries.

One day, Michael strayed far into the forest and into a large rock outcropping on a hillside overlooking the whole forest, where he met another rabbit. Her name was Margaret. But, this rabbit was not the same color of brown of other rabbits Michael knew. And, this rabbit seemed very thin and not as big and strong as the rabbits from Michael’s warren.

Margaret told Michael that she lived in a warren on the other side of the forest, a place where there were many foxes that hunted the rabbits and made it difficult for them to gather food for the upcoming winter. So, Michael returned home and talked to the elders about sharing their food with the rabbits of this other community. But, the elders replied that warrens never shared food before and that he needed to worry about winter and his own warren.

Months went by and the snows came. One day, Michael wandered through the forest near the rocks and ran into Margaret again. She looked very sick and said that her warren was almost completely out of food. So, Michael returned to the elders and asked once again about sharing food. But, the elders replied that now was a bad time to give away food, because winter could go on for another month or more.

The snows finally stopped, and Michael once again found Margaret in the woods. Her warren was in deep trouble because their food had run out and the spring rains had flooded their homes. So, Michael once again appealed to his elders, who agreed to quickly send some food to Margaret’s warren. But, the rescue party was disorganized and paid no attention to the clouds building on the horizon. Halfway through the forest, a huge storm descended and the rabbits had to abandon their food to avoid being swept away by the rains. Michael led them to cover in the rock outcropping until the storm passed.

When Michael and the other rabbits finally returned home, their warren was in a state of panic. Huge machines were moving mountains of earth and destroying the homes of Michael’s family and friends. At that moment, Michael had an idea. He quickly gathered all of the rabbits and told them to take what possessions they could and head back to the rock outcropping. In the meantime, he ran to Margaret’s warren, and told the elders there to gather their belongings and follow him to the rocks.

Over the next few weeks, the two warrens worked together to build a new home amidst the rocks, which sheltered them from rain and snow, and protected them from the foxes. Michael and Margaret eventually married and had many bunnies of their own and the new warren lived happily ever after.

The moral of this story is that a good idea alone is never enough. An idea will fail if people are unwilling to change, if the timing is wrong, or if there is no plan to implement the idea. An idea will only work if people want to change, the timing is right, and there is a vision to accomplish the idea. Perhaps this is a valuable lesson for us all as we begin new church years.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Food Confessions

A few years ago, I wrote a sermon titled "Confessions of an Unrepentant Carnivore." Ironically, I never had a chance to deliver the sermon after the church's schedule changed.

Don't get me wrong. The point of the sermon wasn't anti-vegetarian or anti-vegan. Actually, the sermon was more about pointing out weaknesses I saw in some animal rights arguments. I have long admired people who lived without consuming meat, but just didn't see a time in the future when I could make a similar commitment.

Well, the irony of my unborn sermon has come full circle. A month ago, I decided that the time had come for me to make a commitment to healthier eating and to contributing one more small voice to those arguing that better, more efficient, and more humane ways exist to feed our population than currently employed tactics. My initial efforts have consisted of merely seeing if I could do this thing without going into beef withdrawal. Surprisingly, I honestly have not missed meat at all.

Now, I find the vegetarian substitutes for meat humorous, in that they often try to look like meat. I imagine some manufacturers hope to fool our long-time omnivorous taste buds into believing that that lump of soy protein is really a chicken nugget. But, I actually have not needed much faux-meat in my initial endeavor. As one raised in a household where fresh let alone raw vegetables were rarely served, there has been much I could do to expand my diet with new products. I even cooked my first kale and liked it (hmm, sounds like a Katy Perry song...).

So, I don't envision much tofurkey on my pizzas, but can see more varieties of other vegetables and cheeses. As for my vegan friends, be patient. I'm asking a lot of my badly nourished body now, without taking away milk, cheese, and eggs. But, the day may come because I can envision a time when we take a new look at our seven Unitarian Universalist principles and see the logical conclusion of combining the two framing principles. When we consider the inherent worth of all members of our interdependent web, then we must consider making all of the changes necessary to truly respect all life, and not just human life.

For now, however, let me have my homemade egg muffin sandwich...even if I now make it with spurious sausage.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


I work a lot on my computer. And, since my attention has a tendency to wander, I like to play quick games to focus my thoughts. My latest favorite is Internet Spades, but backgammon and various forms of solitaire will do, as well.

One incredibly frustrating thing about multiplayer games, however, is the tendency many players have to quit a game the moment their score goes sour. In spades, for instance, all too often opponents will quit a game if they lose a nil bid or if their assigned opponent fails to make their quota of tricks in a hand. I find the frequency with which this happens annoying, because I would prefer to play against humans than the somewhat predictable computer.

What irks me the most, however, is this tendency of people to quit at the first sign of adversity. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of overcoming a setback, and take great pride in winning a game during which the score was lopsided in the other team's favor.

But, I think it is the literal lack of willingness to "stay at the table" that perturbs me the most. I suppose that these players are looking for a game where they win 500 to nothing on two blind nil bids, and are not satisfied with anything less. If you want to play alone against the computer in search for the so-called perfect game, be my guest. But, for me, part of the point of playing any game with human companions is the act of playing, of strategizing, and not simply seeking a desired outcome. Frankly, I would rather lose a tight, well-played match than win simply because the other players left the field of play.

Sometimes, staying at the table is not easy. Life does not always deal fair hands to everyone. Sometimes, we might not like the style of other players. And, sometimes, we have to utilize strategies we find uncomfortable in order to achieve our goals.

But life, whether we talk about playing a card game, or running a church, or managing our society, calls upon us all to stay at the table. We may not always get our way. But, as we learn more about others, we learn more about ourselves. And, in the end, the solutions we arrive at will be stronger for our efforts.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Re-dedication Sunday

I would like to put out there the suggestion that Unitarian Universalist churches consider placing the last Sunday of July on their liturgical calendars as Re-dedication Sunday, in memory of the event on July 27, 2008 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. We did this at our service last Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, resulting in a ritual that many in attendance found deeply moving.

I include much of non-sermon text below as the context for the service. The intent was to recognize that our sanctuaries are sacred spaces into which we bring much emotion throughout the year. The idea of Re-dedication Sunday is to cleanse our worship rooms of the past year's accumulation of pain, anxiety, fear, and despair so that healing may begin anew.

Re-dedication of Worship Center Service Elements

Call to Worship

The first peace…is that which comes from within the souls of men when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Sacred, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us. This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this. The second peace is that which is made between two individuals, and the third is that which is made between two nations. But above all you should understand that there can never be peace between nations until there is first known that true peace which is within the souls of men.
-- Black Elk in The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux (1953)

Chalice Lighting

Let there be light!
Let it shine in dark places,
in moments of pain,
in times of grief,
in the darkness of hatred, violence, oppression,
where there is discouragement and despair.
Wherever darkness is to be put to flight,
Let there be light!
-- Gordon McKeeman, Unitarian minister quoting Genesis 1:3 (from 1997 UUMA Worship Materials Collection)


Spirit of Life and Love that we know by many names, enter this space as we honor those whose lives were lost on Sunday, July 27, 2008. One year ago tomorrow, a man entered the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville with a shotgun. In a few short moments, the violent expression of his hate and frustration left two people dead, several wounded, and many shaken with trauma. We remember and honor those directly affected by the shootings at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. We also remember and honor our own feelings we have experienced and will continue to experience related to this and other similar events.

We light a candle in memory of Gregory Joseph (Greg) McKendry Jr., of Knoxville, Tennessee. He was an usher and board member of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.
We light a candle for Linda Kraeger. She was a member of the Westside Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Farragut, Tennessee.

We take time now to remember the joys and the pains that entered through these doors today. We reach out to those who have come in today with heavy hearts; those who are struggling; those among us who are grieving; those who are caring for a loved one; those who are anxiously waiting for an unknown future, and all who are living with illness. We remember those who are home bound or hospitalized or, for whatever reason, could not be present with us today. May their names and faces be brought to mind. May they be assured that they have not been forgotten, and by our reaching out may they know that their presence is missed. Let us also celebrate the accomplishments and successful passages of life events we share today.

Just like our tools of technology, we occasionally need to reboot our lives so that we can better respond to life’s challenges and welcome life’s happiness. We need to cleanse our minds of outworn thoughts of guilt or shame. We need to cleanse our souls of outworn ways of living and being. Throughout the past year, this worship center has been a receptacle for the emotions brought in by the highs and lows of our lives. Just as we need help recovering from the challenges and the excitement of life, we should periodically cleanse our sacred spaces. Today, let us set about the work of cleansing ourselves and our religious home for the busy work in the year to come.


You may have noticed these boxes to my right. Standing on the Side of Love is a public advocacy campaign, sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association, promoting respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Standing on the Side of Love will confront exclusion, oppression, and violence based on identity. Based in the aspiration to create beloved community, the campaign will pursue social change through advocacy, public witness, and speaking out in solidarity with those whose lives are publicly demeaned. All people, not just Unitarian Universalists, are invited to stand, speak, worship, march, roll, and live on the side of the love. Now, in the spirit of remembrance and of unconditional love, I ask the ushers to come forward to collect our morning offering to support the work, the witness, and the wonder of this religious community.

Ritual of Re-Dedication

When I first heard of the events in Knoxville one year ago, I felt a sick dread in the pit of my stomach. Beyond the senselessness of the act, as a long-time religious education teacher and as a parent, I was particularly struck by the occurrence of the act during a children’s play. All that day, I read updates of the news, seeking more facts; seeking information; searching for some reason or explanation.

I talked with others about the event so that I could share my emotions and pain. For we know that by sharing our pain, we can work toward lessening its debilitating impact on us. We can imagine moving beyond these initial emotions toward response, toward action, toward reconciliation. That is the nature of resilience.

Sometimes, we come here on Sunday mornings to share our pain…our pain of anger, our pain of fear, our pain of frustration, our pain of sadness. By sharing in covenant our love for each other and for all of humankind, we build on the knowledge that a shared joy is doubled in the sharing and that a shared pain is half a pain.

I ask you now to rise and form a circle. In this circle of our congregation, let us today re-dedicate this worship room as sacred space. As the chalice, the symbol of our living tradition, is passed among you, hold it for a moment and place into this vessel the fire of your own commitment to this place. May the combined power of our thoughts and feelings cleanse this space of the past year’s accumulation of anxiety, fear, and despair, so that healing can begin anew.

As this flame consumes a year of pain, may this chalice represent the foundation of that joy that is our commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We remember not only the love we have for the victims of terrible events, but for anyone whose life is so bereft of compassion, that violence against others seems their only recourse. We remember to love and to forgive those who, either through mental illness, their own suffering from abuse or violence, or other challenges of life, must be held accountable for their own acts of violence perpetrated on others. Our commitment to justice, equity, and compassion in human relations calls on us to do this.

As we pass our chalice, let us join in singing the hymn Comfort Me.


Please join hands for our closing words. For centuries, Unitarian Universalists have offered to the world the promise of hope; the promise of a world without hate; the promise of a world with equity and justice; the promise of a world without violence. Together, we here present affirm to build hope, for a hope shared can become a vision for the world. Now, more than ever, let us challenge ourselves in the coming year to stand on the side of love, offering the world in this sacred space the promise of hope.

Blessed be, Amen, and Let it be so.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Rethinking Our Holidays

This sermon was delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock on July 5, 2009.

After Julia Ward Howe wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic, the American Civil War raged on for four more bloody years of death and destruction. Five years after that, the Franco-Prussian War broke out in Europe and Howe acted. She began a one-woman global peace crusade, starting with an appeal to womanhood to rise against war. She went to London to promote an international Woman's Peace Congress. That effort failed, so she returned to Boston and initiated a Mothers' Peace Day observance on the second Sunday in June. That meeting was observed for a number of years.

Now, there were other movements afoot to create a day honoring mothers. Ann Jarvis was a young Appalachian homemaker who tried to improve sanitation through what she called Mothers' Work Days before the Civil War. When Jarvis died in 1907, her daughter Anna worked to found a memorial day for women. The first such Mother's Day was celebrated in Grafton, West Virginia on May 10, 1908, at St. Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church, where Anna’s mother had taught Sunday School. From there, the custom caught on and eventually spread to 45 states.

In 1913, Congress declared the second Sunday in May to be Mother's Day. The following year, President Woodrow Wilson made Mother’s Day a national holiday. Now, this is long before radio and television, and advertising was still a new industry. But, the growing American consumer culture had successfully redefined women as buyers for their families. Politicians and businesses eagerly embraced the idea of celebrating the private sacrifices made by individual mothers. As the Florists' Review, the industry's trade journal, bluntly put it, "This was a holiday that could be exploited." The new advertising industry quickly taught Americans the best way to honor their mothers – by buying flowers.

Since then, Mother's Day has ballooned into a billion-dollar event. For those who appreciate irony, Anna Jarvis became increasingly concerned over the commercialization of Mother's Day, saying, "I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit." She opposed the use of greeting cards, calling them "a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write." In 1923, Jarvis filed suit against New York Governor Al Smith, over a Mother's Day celebration. When the suit was dismissed, she began a public protest and was arrested for... disturbing...the peace.

Most Unitarian Universalist congregations routinely observe Easter, Christmas, Passover, Hanukkah, Palm Sunday, and Yom Kippur, in addition to other holidays derived from Christian and Jewish traditions. We can understand the rationale for these celebrations and even concur with our commitment to them. But, harder to understand is our lack of uniquely Unitarian Universalist religious holidays. We engage in a Flower Communion in June – a deeply moving and meaningful practice honoring our service and dedication to justice across the globe. Many of our churches embrace a Water Communion ritual at the end of summer that embodies a spiritual depth and that unifies us in our common human experience. But, we do not set aside whole days to perform these worthy worship elements, nor do we plan our life activities around them for preceding days or weeks.

We can acknowledge the importance of Christmas and Easter to our Christian colleagues, both within this congregation and without. We can respect the place of Yom Kippur and Passover to all of our Jewish comrades. Thankfully, some of our churches offer solstice celebrations for our Wiccan and neo-pagan members and friends. But, where are the religious holidays that every Unitarian Universalist can embrace as his or her own, not just out of a sense of shared joy and reverence, not just out of tradition or habit, but out of true ownership?

To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., the battle is in our hands. And we can answer with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summons us. In doing so, we too can disturb the peace. We can disturb the peace of normalcy that for too long has suffered the manipulations of the self-righteous and the war profiteers. We can disturb the peace of normalcy that turns every decent expression of sentiment and honor into an opportunity for retail sales and advertising bonanzas. For we can and should reclaim Mother’s Day for the purpose Julia Ward Howe intended. The Mother’s Day for Peace should rise up again to help us create a normal world where every person is regarded with inherent worth and dignity; a normal world with justice, equity, and compassion; a normal world with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Two years ago, Unitarian Universalist women in Kansas City began planning an event for the upcoming Mother’s Day. “Julia's Voice” is a group of mothers and others joined together to return Mother’s Day to its original intent. They peacefully assembled along a public sidewalk and, standing shoulder to shoulder, were joined by Julia Ward Howe re-enactors, musicians, and other special guests. That is one way to reclaim our holiday. There are many others.

We can take the money we spend on greeting cards and use it to send letters to politicians and businesses and tell them what we think about war. We can take the money we spend on flowers and use it to provide microloans, or to buy alternative gifts for women across the world in need of our assistance. We can use the day to write, to study, to talk with each other and plan for our future. And, we don’t have to wait for Mother’s Day to honor the mothers in our lives.

The original Mother’s Day for Peace envisioned by Julia Ward Howe possessed deep meaning. The origins of Father’s Day lack even this hint of significance beyond a maudlin celebration as manipulated by commercial interests. The beginnings of the first Father’s Day celebrations derived from people listening to Mother’s Day sermons in the early 1900’s. It was not until the 1930’s, however, when the Associated Men's Wear Retailers formed the National Council for the Promotion of Father's Day, that a concerted effort to legitimize the holiday arose.

People were slow to accept Father’s Day because they saw the holiday for the marketing device that it was. And yet, people increasingly felt compelled to buy gifts in spite of the facade, and the custom of giving gifts on that day became progressively more accepted. By 1937, the Council calculated that only one father in six had received a present on that day. By the 1980’s, the Council proclaimed that they had achieved their goal: that one day holiday had become a three-week commercial event, a "second Christmas."

Well, if Madison Avenue can create a holiday celebrated across the country by millions of people, why can’t we reshape that holiday into one with deeper meaning and perhaps with broader purpose? Why can’t we, as we reclaim the Unitarian Universalist heritage of Mother’s Day as a day promoting world peace, recast Father’s Day with a new intent and with a new range of activities and ways to involve everyone in our religious communities?

Especially to all of the young people here today, this point is important. As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. What exactly does that mean to you? When you come here for Sunday School classes, how do you see yourself freely and responsibly searching for truth and meaning?

For me, it means that I will think for myself and not let other people do my thinking for me. It means that when I decide to do something, I will do it because I want to, not because other people want me to. And, it means that whatever I think or do in my life, I want those thoughts and actions to mean something – to be important.

Now, I hope that everyone here has had a father, or one or more people in your lives who served the role of fathers. And I hope that the relationship that you have with that person is a loving one. You should feel free to take the time to honor and to share your thoughts with that person anytime, and not wait for the calendar to limit you. There is no rule that says that you must wait until Father’s Day to reach out to the fathers in your life.

So, what then do we do with the Father’s Day holiday? As we reclaim Mother’s Day for world peace, let us rededicate Father’s Day as a celebration of domestic peace – peace in our homes and peace in our hearts. Responsive reading #602 in the back of our hymnal quotes Lao-Tse, the central founding figure of Taoism 2,500 years ago.
  • If there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the nations.
  • If there is to be peace in the nations, there must be peace in the cities.
  • If there is to be peace in the cities, there must be peace between neighbors.
  • If there is to be peace between neighbors, there must be peace in the home.
  • If there is to be peace in the home, there must be peace in the heart.

The essence of this wisdom is this. We must have peace within ourselves and our families before we can become peacemakers in our communities and in our world. Father’s Day can become a time for reflection and study about our own lives; a time for families to bond and resolve differences; a time to strengthen the foundation of peace that can lead to a world without war. For the more practically-minded, Father’s Day can become a day to support agencies that combat domestic violence and that support healthy lives for children.

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day as we currently celebrate them can represent a noble exercise. Those who fulfill the roles of mothers and fathers in our society deserve our respect and our recognition. The question we must ask ourselves, however, is this. How do we best honor our mothers and fathers? How do we best honor the parents of all the other children of the world? How do we best honor those who assume this responsibility for tomorrow’s children?

Considered together, a Unitarian Universalist revisioning of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can celebrate men and women as role models for children and as partners for each other. As religious celebrations, these holidays can represent our commitment to the principles of our covenant, from the inherent worth and dignity of every person to the goal of world community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

An essential broader message overlays this idea to remember when you leave here today, when you sit at your desk this week, or when you return to school in a couple of months. Ask questions when you do not understand why things are the way they are. Challenge rules and beliefs that you see as unfair or oppressive. Use what you acquire here on Sunday morning to shine a religious light on all aspects of your life. Use that religious lens to rethink every aspect of your life, of our society, and of our world.

Benediction (modern words based on Julia Ward Howe's 1870 Proclamation proclaiming Mother's Day)

Arise, then, men of this day! Arise all men who have hearts, whether forged from fire or from fears!

Say firmly: We will not have our families damaged by outmoded stereotypes. Our partners shall not come to us, cowering and frightened. Our sons and daughters shall not go into the world equating manliness with malevolence, but with mercy. Our children will know men capable of compassion with strength; patience with wisdom; and forgiveness with justice.

We men of one community must be too tender of those of another community to allow our sons to accept violence as a tool of communication. From the bosom of our devastated homes a voice goes up with our own. It says "Men of the world! The fist of anger cannot wield the touch of parental caring and of spousal love."

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms - Mystic


From: Middle English mistik, from Latin mysticus of mysteries, from Greek mystikos, from mystes initiate
Date: 14th century
2 of or relating to mysteries or esoteric rites: occult
4a: mysterious b: obscure, enigmatic c: inducing a feeling of awe or wonder d: having magical properties

Hexham's Concise Dictionary of Religion
A mystic is one who claims to know god immediately through a form of spiritual inwardness, as against knowing through sensation or through logical processes. They may report the experience of a sacred-human relationship, particularly of a oneness with a divine or trans-divine being or state.

Mystic is a word that has acquired much baggage, often associated with pseudo-science, magic, and the occult. Divorced of these exotic inferences, the mystic simply believes that there exists a reality beyond the material plane of ruled by mathematics and physics. The mystic accesses these realities through "peak experiences," or moments of transcendence. Just as light exists as both wave and particle, the mystic believes that humans can exist in both the physical and the spiritual world simultaneously.

By including one’s perception to all realms of consciousness, the mystic opens themselves up to all fields of possibility. A common conception in Eastern thinking, the mystic pursues an egoless existence, seen as the route to authenticity, wholeness, and intuitive knowledge. The Western construct tends to connect the mystic with a deity, or some absolute divinity.

Atheist Definition: The mystic believes in a reality beyond the physical plane of human sensory perception, and through peak experiences senses this mysterious existence, transcending culturally imposed beliefs and conceptions. The atheist mystic connects intuitively with this alternate reality, becoming more authentic and whole.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Views on Torture by Religious Demographic

We may not consider Jesus divine, but one survey suggests that atheists pay closer attention to his teachings than those who do. An analysis of a new survey illustrates differences in the views of four major religious traditions in the U.S. about whether torture of suspected terrorists can be justified.

The specific question put to the 742 adults polled last month was, "Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can be justified often, sometimes, rarely, or never?"

The summary of responses to the question posed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that 62% of white evangelical Protestants believe that torturing suspected terrorists could be often or sometimes justified to get critical information. Fifty-one percent of white, non-Hispanic Catholics and 46% of white mainline Protestants agreed. Ironically, the respondents with no religious ties ("Unaffiliated") were the least supportive – 40% – of the use of torture.

Now, this is one survey of only a few hundred people. But, the results raise the question of how people develop their ethical standards and whether or not religious belief, specifically theistically-centered religious belief, is a stronger grounding for this work than atheistic approaches. As an atheist, I am completely free to adopt part or all of the moral teachings of Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, Lao Tse, Confucius, or any other great prophet without needing to place one above the other.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms - Prophesy


From: Middle English prophesien, from Anglo-French prophecier, from Old French, from prophecie
Date: 14th century
transitive verb (i.e. requiring a direct object)
1 to utter by or as if by divine inspiration
2 to predict with assurance or on the basis of mystic knowledge
intransitive verb (i.e. cannot take a direct object)
1 to speak as if divinely inspired
2 to give instruction in religious matters: preach
3 to make a prediction

Hexham's Concise Dictionary of Religion
To prophesy is to conduct the act of revelation, giving an inspired message from God or the Gods. Usually a prophecy is associated with foretelling the future, but it can also include messages of inspiration or admonishment that reveal the will of God towards a particular people or even an individual.

Grammar plays an important role in determining the use of the term "to prophesy." In its transitive form, the act of prophesying implies that the message originates from a deity ("The minister prophesied rewards for the faithful and punishment for the wicked."). In its intransitive form, prophesying derives from the human speaker ("The minister prophesied in the Sunday morning sermon.") In its intransitive form, therefore, anyone is capable of prophesying, to teach, to predict, or simply to make observations.

In this broader view, any oration in a religious venue can be viewed as an act of prophesying. Ordained clergy, who have generally received extensive instruction in religious matters and gone through a discernment process to prepare them for ordination, might be expected to regularly prophesy as part of the practice of homiletics (delivering sermons aimed at the spiritual needs, capacities, and conditions of a congregation). When viewed as a profession, prophesying might be considered an act expected of ministers to offer insight, inspiration, and instruction through preaching.

Atheist Definition: Prophesying is the act of speaking or writing to make observations, to inspire, or to teach others regarding religious matters.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms - Prayer


From: Middle English, from Anglo-French priere, praiere, preiere, from Medieval Latin precaria, from Latin, feminine of precarius obtained by entreaty, from prec-, prex
Date: 14th century
1 a (1): an address (as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought (2): a set order of words used in praying b: an earnest request or wish
2: the act or practice of praying to God or a god

Hexham's Concise Dictionary of Religion
Prayer is the means by which an individual or group attempts to enter into verbal or mental communication with a deity.

Prayers can be separated into two categories: prayer with and prayer to. When we are with others, either during a worship service, at a meal, or alongside one who is ill or troubled, we can pray with. Prayer with begins with listening to and caring about those with are with. Our prayers reflect their needs, the matters afflicting their minds and hearts. The purpose of prayer with is to let others know that they have been heard, that they have had the opportunity to articulate their fears, and that they are not alone in their struggles. Prayer with aims to help others find within themselves, their family, and their friends the resources to cope and to explore the wonders of existence.

If one does not believe in a deity, then what is the target of prayer to? We are all part of a universe of forces, fields, and life. We may never comprehend all of the levels of consciousness that exist in that expanse. As constituents in that enterprise, prayer to simply means asking for help from whatever resources there are - whether those resources lie in the depths of time and space, or deep within ourselves.

Atheist Definition: Prayer is the act of engaging spiritually with our inner selves, with others, and with the universe by reaching out and asking for help, support, and reassurance.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Another Definition

My attention recently has been drawn to words, particularly terms that challenge religious atheists. Another word brought to my attention in the past month deals with ministerial authority and discernment. That word is humility.

In my congregational polity class, we were asked from whence we will draw our authority as ministers. The author of one of our readings presumed that the pulpit for "serious" preachers has dimensions that are "scary and threatening." Now, I might be willing to accept "daunting," but the only nervousness I have when I am in the pulpit is simply the desire for service elements to go as I have planned. And even then, when worship goes in unplanned directions, the results can be amazing.

My source of authority, in the pulpit and throughout my ministerial development, has been human courage. As an historian, and particularly as a fan of Unitarian Universalist history, I cannot help but be infused with the numerous instances of courage displayed by my predecessors over the centuries. The enormous sacrifices paid by some, from imprisonment to even death, evidence the cost paid for our liberal faith. The bravery of countless women and men to commit heresy ("to choose") when that choice ran counter to the dominant paradigm of society reveals the depth of our convictions. The dedication of our religious ancestors to acts of justice, acceptance, and compassion indicate the essential place of love in our collective theology.

When I stand in front of a congregation, I walk a path trod by many hundreds of others who have committed themselves to this task. I stand for the freedom paid for by the toil, sweat, tears, and even blood of comrades gone before. I speak with my own authentic voice since our commitment to polity does not bind me to creedal statements or hierarchies beyond the people I serve. I speak from my own experience because I can trust the wisdom and the capacity to reason of my congregants to think for themselves and to apply what they hear to their own lives. And, I prophesy because, as the author of that same article stated, I must say what I say and never compromise because that is how we grow and learn and be with each other.

When I have doubts, or question why I should assume this mantle of responsibility, all I have to do is to remember that I am not in the pulpit alone. I am with Arius and Origen, Servetus and David, the Polish Brethren, Murray and Ballou, Channing and Parker, and hundreds of current ministers and seminarians. My source of authority is the human courage to choose, to sacrifice for one’s beliefs, and to open oneself to others freely.

But, it has been pointed out to me that I can come across as “confident,” even “egocentric.” I have been cautioned to hone my humility. So, let’s look at this word “humble.” According to Wiktionary, the two meanings include:

1. Near the ground; not high or lofty; not pretentious or magnificent; unpretending; unassuming; as, a humble cottage.
2. Thinking lowly of one's self; claiming little for one's self; not proud, arrogant, or assuming; lowly; weak; modest.

Some of these meanings are, indeed, worth cultivating. As I become a minister, I am endeavoring to avoid being pretentious or arrogant, to pretending to be something I am not, or to assuming that I am more than I am.

But I find little value in thinking of myself as lowly and weak. And while I do not see myself as above others, I do represent the search for the loftiest of human concerns; our attempts to engage with our ultimate purposes. I am just a catalyst, here to play a small role to facilitate the reaction between souls and between each individual and the universe. Our liberal religious tradition is magnificent, and as its representative in that moment in time behind the pulpit, I would do it a disservice to aspire too much to modesty, and to regard it with too little pride.

Of course, the lines drawn here are thin. I can only hope that those listening to my sermons or reading my words sense the sincerity with which I present them. Not just as a candidate for the ministry, but as a human being, I aspire to greatness and to encouraging greatness in others. That is a humbling goal, but one that I strive achieve with every fiber of my being.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Gross National Happiness

I am thinking of moving to Bhutan.

Seriously, though, while there are certainly problems with any effort like this, I applaud the effort at grand vision. We assume that the way things are in the world are "natural" and somehow intrinsic. I find it refreshing to see that someone somewhere thinks otherwise and imagines a better way.


Published Date: 10 May 2009
By Seth Mydans in Thimphu, Bhutan

Forget quantitative easing, fiscal stimulus or liquidity injections. Gross national happiness could be the way forward. The tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, high in the Himalayan mountains, is working on a rather different answer to the global economic meltdown than the rest of the world. "Greed, insatiable human greed," said Prime Minister Jigme Thinley, describing
what he sees as the cause of today's economic catastrophe in the world beyond the snow-topped mountains. "What we need is change," he said in the whitewashed fortress where he works. "We need to think gross national happiness."

The notion of gross national happiness was the inspiration of the former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s, as an alternative to the gross national product. Now, the Bhutanese are refining the country's guiding philosophy into what they see as a new political science, and it has ripened into government policy just when the world may need it, said Kinley Dorji, secretary of information and communications. "You see what a complete dedication to economic development ends up in," he said, referring to the global economic crisis. "Industrialised societies have decided now that GNP is a broken promise.

"Under a new Constitution adopted last year, government programmes – from agriculture to transportation to foreign trade – must be judged not by the economic benefits they may offer but by the happiness they produce. The goal is not happiness itself, the prime minister explained, a concept that each person must define for himself. Rather, the government aims to create the conditions for what he called, in an updated version of the American Declaration of Independence, "the pursuit of gross national happiness".

The Bhutanese have started with an experiment within an experiment, accepting the resignation of the popular king as an absolute monarch and holding the country's first democratic election a year ago. The change is part of attaining gross national happiness, Dorji said. "They resonate well, democracy and GNH. Both place responsibility on the individual. Happiness is an individual pursuit and democracy is the empowerment of the individual.

"It was a rare case of a monarch's unilaterally stepping back from power, and an even rarer case of his doing so against the wishes of his subjects. He gave the throne to his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who was crowned in November in the new role of constitutional monarch without executive power.

Bhutan is, perhaps, an easy place to nimbly rewrite economic rules – a country with one airport and two commercial planes, where the east can only be reached from the west after four days' travel on mountain roads. No more than 700,000 people live in the kingdom, squeezed between the world's two most populous nations, India and China, and its task now is to control and manage the inevitable changes to its way of life. It is a country where cigarettes are banned and television was introduced just 10 years ago, where traditional clothing and architecture are enforced by law and where the capital city has no stoplight and just one traffic officer on duty.

If the world is to take gross national happiness seriously, the Bhutanese concede, they must work out a scheme of definitions and standards that can be quantified and measured by the big players of the world's economy." Once Bhutan said, 'OK, here we are with GNH,' the developed world and the World Bank and the IMF and so on asked, 'How do you measure it?'" Dorji said, characterising the reactions of the world's big economic players. So the Bhutanese produced an intricate model of well-being that features the four pillars, the nine domains and the 72 indicators of happiness.

Specifically, the government has determined that the four pillars of a happy society involve the economy, culture, the environment and good governance. It breaks these into nine domains: psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance, each with its own weighted and unweighted GNH index.All of this is to be analysed using the 72 indicators. Under the domain of psychological well-being, for example, indicators include the frequencies of prayer and meditation and of feelings of selfishness, jealousy, calm, compassion, generosity and frustration, as well as suicidal thoughts.

"We are even breaking down the time of day: how much time a person spends with family, at work and so on," Dorji said. Mathematical formulae have even been devised to reduce happiness to its tiniest component parts. Every two years, these indicators are to be reassessed through a nationwide questionnaire, said Karma Tshiteem, secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission, as he sat in his office at the end of a hard day of work that he said made him happy. Gross national happiness has a broader application for Bhutan as it races to preserve its identity and culture from the encroachments of the outside world."How does a small country like Bhutan handle globalisation?" Dorji asked. "We will survive by being distinct, by being different.

"Bhutan is pitting its four pillars, nine domains and 72 indicators against the 48 channels of Hollywood and Bollywood that have invaded since television was permitted a decade ago. "Before June 1999 if you asked any young person who is your hero, the inevitable response was, 'The king,' " Dorji said. "Immediately after that it was David Beckham, and now it's 50 Cent, the rap artist. Parents are helpless." So if GNH may hold the secret of happiness for people suffering from the collapse of financial institutions abroad, it offers something more urgent here in this pristine culture."Bhutan's story today is, in one word, survival," Dorji said. " Gross national happiness is survival; how to counter a threat to survival."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Draft Statement of Conscience on Peacemaking

While I do not object to the contents of the current draft Unitarian Universalist Statement of Conscience on Peacemaking, it simply does not go far enough to garner my support as a statement of vision and aspiration. Therefore, I intend to submit my thoughts in the coming weeks, possibly as a prelude to a formal suggestion for amendment at General Assembly. I have drafted language that I might use in these discussions. I share them with you to solicit your feedback, so that I can be as clear and effective as possible. I would appreciate your reactions to the following.

The present draft Unitarian Universalist Statement of Conscience on Peacemaking leaves insufficient room for me as a pacifist to enter in affirmation. The Theological Principles expressed are those of a pacifist. However, the assessment of Where We Stand permits too great a latitude for armed aggression and the self-perpetuating cycle of violence to continue from one generation to the next. I cannot condone the use of military force as a method to inflict the will of one group of peoples over another, regardless of the sincerity of the purpose. Those who live by the sword will always find justification in "humanitarian purposes" and "self-defense."

The proposed statement represents an admirable first step. However, I need this Statement to clearly express a Unitarian Universalist vision of future human society. In order to open space for me in the document, I respectfully suggest the following words be inserted just before the final sentence of the draft.

Unitarian Universalists envision a future society free of violence and oppression, of unlimited justice and freedom, without which there can be no peace. Humankind took thousands of years to hone its knowledge and fashion its skills and behaviors as war makers; it will take time to fully reclaim our human legacy as peacekeepers. We pray that someday all men and women will live with peace in their hearts and love for each other. Until that time, in reverence for all life, we covenant to practice peace by minimizing violence at all levels of human interaction.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms - Religion


From: Anglo-French religiun, Latin religion-, religio supernatural constraint, sanction, religious practice, perhaps from religare to restrain, tie back
Date: 13th century
1 b (1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2 a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
4 a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Hexham's Concise Dictionary of Religion
Hundreds of different definitions of religion exist each reflecting either a scholarly or a dogmatic bias depending in the last resort on the presuppositions of the person making the definition. Religion clearly contains intellectual, ritual, social, and ethical elements, bound together by an explicit or implicit belief in the reality of an unseen world, whether this belief be expressed in supernaturalistic or idealistic terms. A number of the more common definitions are those that presume the existence of the Sacred (Peter Berger, Emile Durkheim), the Supernatural/Divine (James Frazer, Immanuel Kant, Rodney Stark), or Order/Purpose (William James).

Some definitions of the term focus more on the presence of different states of being and humankind’s grappling to come to terms with those differences, without making judgments regarding the nature of other states. George Hegel called religion "the knowledge possessed by the finite mind of its nature as absolute mind," while Friedrich Schleiermacher called it "a feeling for the infinite," and Alfred North Whitehead described it as "what the individual does with his own solitariness."

Some etymologists connect "religion" to the Latin ligare, which is the same root of the word ligament, meaning "to bind." Re-ligare, therefore, would mean to bind again, perhaps in a ritualistic manner, or in meaningful practices.

Atheist Definition: Religion is the collection of practices by which groups of people come together repeatedly to find meaning in the relationship of themselves and of humankind to all existence, known and unknown.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms - Spirit


From: Middle English, from Anglo-French or Latin; Anglo-French, espirit, spirit, from Latin spiritus, literally, breath, from spirare to blow, breathe
Date: 13th century
1 an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms
2 a supernatural being or essence: as Holy Spirit or Soul
4 the immaterial intelligent or sentient part of a person
5 a: the activating or essential principle influencing a person b: an inclination, impulse, or tendency of a specified kind: mood

Hexham's Concise Dictionary of Religion
In some religions, spirits are disembodied entities that display the characteristics of individual persons, and are sometimes regarded as the souls of dead ancestors. Spirits can interact and even communicate with the living through dreams, illness, and unusual events which reveal the presence of a spirit. The soul is the immortal element in human beings sometimes regarded as our true self. The immortality of the soul gradually replaced the earlier emphasis in early Christianity that the central concept was the resurrection of the body.

One may assume that the human brain is the seat of information collection and processing and that the glandular system contributes much to our emotional responses. Does anything remain unaccounted for in that system of human physiology, requiring the presence of an immaterial sentience essential for personhood? If so, do we interact with other humans, other sentient beings, even inanimate objects in ways that do not occur on the material plane of measurable observation?

In recent years, thinkers such as Jung have postulated a collective unconsciousness based on the occurrence of acausal coincidence, and that some level of deep meaning exists in universal symbols and human archetypes as revealed in mythology. Others argue that the search for meaning and significance where none exist gives rise to pseudoscience and undocumentable paranormal practices.

Atheist Definition: Spirit describes those essential elements of individual identity that are immaterial and do not, therefore, adhere to physical or medical laws. An individual’s spirit may interact with others, or with all existence (Spiritus Mundi, the spirit of the world) in ways that may reveal shared experience or common affect from which one may glean meaning. If one is concerned with the association with Spiritism, then the word perhaps may be used interchangeably with the terms "mind" or "soul."

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Saving My Own Life

The journey toward ministry can be frantic, and I have epitomized just how crazy that trip can be for the past three years. Lately, however, my body has been talking to me, telling me that maybe the time has come to slow down...just a little. Fortunately, I have been listening.

Last Monday night, I was having dinner with a new acquaintance in the Upper West Side, near Columbia University. I took the subway early to explore the area on a gorgeous spring day. At one point, I sat on a bench on a traffic island in the middle of Broadway where it crosses 103rd Street. I sat and read and just soaked in the City. I called my son to share the moment with him, but he wasn’t home.

Later that night, I felt sick - sharp chest pain, short breath, and eventually vomiting, which made me think I had some kind of bad reaction to my spicy dinner. A diagnostician I am not. At 8:00 Tuesday morning, my son returned my call. He had been up all night (ah, to be 22 again) and knew I would be awake. When I told him I was sick, he insisted that I get to the hospital. He persisted until I relented and drove to the emergency room (yes, the nurses yelled at me for that, too).

By the time I lumbered into the ER, my heart rate was 240. It seems I had been in arrhythmia for hours. They shocked me to return my heart to a normal rhythm (not an experience I recommend). The doctor told me that if I had waited much longer, I would have likely passed out and died.

Twenty-four hours later, they installed a defibrillator in my chest. My prognosis seems very good, although I will not ever again be able to use a cell phone in my left ear, or have a long list of other machines within six inches of the device. Now, I am recuperating at home contemplating all of this, and have come to the following conclusions.

  • I owe my life to my son, to his stubborn insistence that trumped my stubborn resistance;
  • I owe my life to the relationship I have with my children, whom I love deeply; and
  • I owe my life to setting aside the time to take a brief moment to sit and watch life pass by.

I am more committed now than ever to my ministry, to getting the most out of every day I have, and to letting go of petty, unimportant trivia that bombards our lives. And, part of my ministry will become sitting on park benches in the middle of major thoroughfares, or other opportunities to just experience life in all its flavors.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms - Sacrament

During conversation after my worship service yesterday, it occurred to me that people whose theology has moved beyond the traditional construct of god could use a dictionary of religious terms. For one, we could benefit from having our own understanding of words commonly used in our culture. Two, such a dictionary might help us talk with our theist friends and colleagues and create better understanding.

So, herein I propose a possible format for such a dictionary, starting with a word I have been working on myself recently. I welcome comments and feedback on the usefulness of such a project.


From: Middle English sacrement, sacrament, from Anglo-French and Late Latin; Anglo-French, from Late Latin sacramentum, from Latin, oath of allegiance, obligation, from sacrare to consecrate
Date: 13th century
1 a: a Christian rite (as baptism or the Eucharist) that is believed to have been ordained by Christ and that is held to be a means of divine grace or to be a sign or symbol of a spiritual reality b: a religious rite or observance comparable to a Christian sacrament
2 capitalized a: communion b: blessed sacrament
3 something likened to a religious sacrament

Hexham's Concise Dictionary of Religion
A Rite in which God (or Gods) is (are) uniquely active. Augustine of Hippo defined a Christian sacrament as "a visible sign of an invisible reality." The Anglican Book of Common Prayer speaks of them as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace." Examples of sacraments would be baptism and the mass.

For Roman Catholics, recognized sacraments include baptism, confirmation, ordination of clergy, the Eucharist (communion), confession, matrimony, and unction for the dying. Protestant churches largely retain only baptism and communion among their sacraments. Sikhs and Hindus recognize as many as 42 samskāras. These ritualistic rites of passage celebrate accomplishments of life and prepare the individual's mind and body for full membership in the community. While these represent the recognized form of sacraments, what defines something as a sacrament more generally, that is, for someone who does not adhere to a specific religious tradition?

A common thread running through the many definitions one finds of the term is that a sacrament is an act that bestows grace through a material vehicle on a recipient, where grace (in the Christian theology) is God's free expression of love. So, by consuming the wafer and the wine, God transfuses the faithful with his spiritual energy. The touch of water during baptism blesses a child with the enabling power of God. Generally, a sacrament requires the right matter (such as the wafer and the wine), the right form of action of ritual or ceremony, and the right intention on the part of the participant. The sense of such requirements prevents mundane or simply habitual practices from acquiring the important status of sacrament. Sacraments show that the grace of God lies not always in the invisible and the unknowable, but can work through specific matter, people, and institutions.

An additional attribute of sacraments recognized by various faith traditions is that, generally, salvation or the achievement of religious consciousness requires the performance of sacraments in a person's life. Now, if one does not adhere to the belief in a god who would create any soul destined to an eternity of damnation, then no specific act is required to attain salvation or ultimate consciousness, which is inevitably inherent in every person.

Atheist Definition: A sacrament is a ritual or ceremony (perhaps related to significant life stages or rites of passage) during which one seeks, receives, and accepts through a physical act and form the sensation of unexpected energy from unknown sources, or the revelation of deep personal or universal understanding.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Happy National Record Store Day!

After my recent excursion in the hospital (see my post from April 16), I've thought a lot about self-care. Frankly, that is an area I have not excelled at in recent years. I love ministry, but I do occasionally need someone to tell me to go home and enjoy the sunshine - which is what happened when I went into work the day after being released from the hospital.

Then, I heard about National Record Store Day - a celebration of independent music retailers. I am a vinyl fan, and saw this as a great opportunity to make a date with myself. There are several record stores in Greenwich Village and the weather forecast was fantastic. So, this morning, I set out for a day of wandering and spending copious amounts of money that I don't have without caring.
My day started with two discoveries I had not expected. One was to finally find a coffee importer that would spare me from drinking grocery store drek, and the other was a marvelous little book store called Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books. The owner was a delightful woman and she had an amazingly good selection of books for even more incredible prices. My son has suggested that I read On the Road for some time, so I decided to buy the new edition that is the original scroll that Kerouac created for his first draft.

Then, it was off to the quest of the day - records! First stop was House of Oldies (Petula Clark's Downtown and the 2-LP Doobie Brothers Farewell Tour). The owner told me that he had been in business for 40 years. I can only imagine the changes he has seen in that neighborhood since the Summer of Love. Next came Bleecker Street Records (Theolonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, Stephen Stills' Just Roll Tape April 26, 1968, and The Young Rascals). I also picked up The Pretenders' special 7" red vinyl disk made for National Record Store Day.

Next, I stumbled across Strider Records. The owner, another long-time retailer, presided over a crowded space packed with 45's and LP's of all types. I relieved him of two original John Coltrane albums (Crescent and Sun Ship). Then lunch at The Slaughtered Lamb Pub. I had been sitting for some time, enjoying the open window and my shepherd's pie before I even noticed the life-sized sculpture of the werewolf and his bride, pictured to the left. In a gaudy, Madame Tussaud's way, it was actually kind of cool. Speaking of food, I forgot to mention the insanely decadent chocolate concoction I ate with my morning coffee. I honestly felt sorry for the other people sitting in the park, watching me caress the delightful dessert.
Last was Generation Records. Although here I was interested in CD's, since these groups (Evanescence, Lacuna Coil, Sirenia, and Epica) do not produce vinyl releases. My bundle grew heavy as I strolled through Washington Square Park (which BTW has the cutest little dog park I've ever seen). I figured that I had pushed my body about as far as I could and headed for the subway home.
This week, I looked at my life through a different lens. My goals remain the same. I want to become a minister, a great preacher, someone who inspires and rocks proverbial boats. I want to be a cool grandfather someday. And, whatever form it takes, I want to love greatly. National Record Store Day let me declare that I will not allow money or any other trivial reservations keep me from being happy and from living life.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

An Atheist's Prayer

My life has seen abundant change in recent months - leaving my old job and starting my internship, moving to a new home in an amazing new city, becoming actively single for the first time in over 25 years. The transitions have been smooth and exciting, perhaps a little too exciting.

I entered the emergency room Monday afternoon with short breath, dizziness, sweat, and extreme worry. They quickly connected me to monitors and tested my heart, blood, and lungs. The next day, I was transferred to a larger hospital for an angiogram.

When I wasn't worrying, I tried to read Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. Why had I brought that book with me? I picked it up a few days before. While definitely not my normal reading material, I thought that I should get in touch with a book cited by many as inspirational.

Early in the book, the author recounts a conversation with a friend, expressing her desire to petition to God for help with her personal life. However, she believed that asking for specific help from God showed a weakness of faith, or a desire to avoid facing a challenge in life. Her friend politely responded, "Where'd you get that stupid idea?" The friend continued, "You are part of the universe...You're a constituent - you have every entitlement to participate in the actions of the universe, and to let your feelings be known. So put your opinion out there. Make your case. Believe me - it will at least be taken into consideration."

I have led prayer in worship. I have prayed with hospital patients. I have prayed for others in times of struggle. But, I have not prayed for myself since my bedtime prayers of early childhood. It seemed like a good time to try praying for myself. So, I wrote the following.
Power of all. Please help me. I want to come fully in touch with everything that is - all of the forces, fields, energies of existence. I want to help people find meaning in their lives and to encourage them to pursue their goals in life. I have worked hard to get myself into the position to do this for and with as many people as I can. For right now, though, I need help getting through my doubts, loneliness, and fear. I cannot help but worry about whether or not I will accomplish my goals of becoming a minister, a husband again, and a grandfather. I am afraid that my body will prevent me from achieving my goals. Please help me through this crisis so I can do the work I have committed myself to do.
I thought about the people in my life who would join me in this prayer, most of whom did not even know I was in the hospital. I imagined the strength that would come from them to support me in my doubt and fear.

Anyway, I am home again. The diagnosis at this point is great. No apparent physical damage to the heart or lungs; just a slightly under active heart muscle and thyroid, for which the doctors prescribed medication. Reminding oneself periodically of all of the connections in the world is a good practice. Practicing healthy self-care is the best basic prescription to pursuing one's goals in life. And, reaching out and asking for help when we need it taps us into the web of power and energy that flows between us and among us in the universe.

Friday, April 10, 2009

An Atheist's Easter

Among the religious paths one may travel, that of the atheist can be unique. Our biggest pitfall lies in defining ourselves by our nonbelief, rather than our beliefs. When combined with anger, with shame and guilt, and with the ever freshly-laid macadam of betrayal, we may find ourselves wandering in our own wilderness. Once the first surge of courage subsides, comfort lies in the sure knowledge that one has rejected that to which so many others adhere.

Easter can present particular challenge for the atheist. Even the marginally religious find their way to church leaving the atheist to taste once again the bile of discarded myth and the oppression of social paradigm. We might get edgy and may be a little shorter of patience at this time of year. We love the crocus, the daffodil, and even the dandelion, but we resist the unbridled joy of springtime metaphors in favor of a balanced appreciation of all seasons.

The lesson for me came when I realized that atheism is not an end, but a freeing and glorious beginning. Released from the constructs of sacred and supernatural, the atheist plunges into the wonder and mystery of the cosmos as an equal partner with all existence. Freed of the tyranny of science and sentience, the atheist examines the unknowable fields and forces surrounding us

The atheist can know epiphany without a risen Christ and can appreciate the man Jesus and his message. The atheist can know the triumphal redemption of Passover beyond the temple rules and the bound of any one folklore. Easter and Passover represent the celebration of renewal, a feeling we all can marvel in and share.

This Easter, I will sit in my congregation’s worship service. I might actually listen to the words being spoken. But, mostly, I will be present with others, stretching out beyond this identifying shell to commune with the minds and souls around me. I will feast on the quick energy of chocolate, the sustaining strength of my fellow humans, and the raw power of the universe.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Gun Deaths in Pittsburgh

I may be living in New York City now, but I am a long-time Pittsburgher. Today, I can only think of the heartache being felt in my City after the senseless deaths of three police officers at the hands of yet another disturbed gun owner.

When will this ever end?

I've heard all of the arguments before. Tell them to five girls who have lost their fathers, and two wives and a fiance now left widowed. Please, tell them to their faces why these men needed to die to protect your right to own firearms.

How about a silly example. Let's say that I loved bowling more than anything in my life. I bowled every day and owned 16 different balls for different lane conditions. But, every year, thousands of people were being murdered and injured by people with bowling balls. Yes, I can argue that I have a constitutional right to pursue happiness. Yes, owning a warehouse of bowling balls is legal. And yet, I would not for one second think twice about giving my passion up completely if there was any hope that getting rid of bowling balls (or at least making it marginally difficult to obtain them) would save innocent lives. I place the value of human life above a legalistic fanaticism to maintaining my rights and to the pursuit of a unique form of pleasure.

Pick your study. Gun-related deaths per capita in the United States dwarf those of other developed nations. In some instances, our rate of gun violence is 10 or even 20 times that of other developed nations. Quibble away with the statistics, but this is simply unacceptable.

A long-time friend said that the shooter was opposed to 'Zionist propaganda' and was fearful that his right to own weapons would be taken away. "He always said that if someone tried to take his weapons away he would do what his forefathers told him to do and defend himself." Is this the right the gun lobbyists in this country really want to defend? I say that the right of the police, as well as hundreds of millions of innocent citizens, to live their lives free of fear and violence trumps paranoid delusions and reactionary propaganda about what the founders of this country really intended.

This madness will not end until enough citizens petition their legislators to enact sane gun control laws. We cannot hope to address this issue until the voices calling for reason and responsibility outnumber the dollars of the gun lobbyists.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ya Gotta Love Facebook

Any doubts I might have had about Facebook are gone. Today I received an email and friend request from a person I had lost track of and who utterly changed my life more than 20 years ago.

In 1985, I was taking doctoral classes in Business, mainly as a credential for advancement in the university administration. Things went well for a couple of terms. But, during the summer of 1986, I was fed up with the way doctoral students were treated. A fellow student named Joyce sensed my frustration and talked me into going out for a drink.

As I ranted about everything from classes to the state of the world, she told me that I sounded like a brochure she had just picked up at a church the past Sunday. The brochure was an introduction to Unitarian Universalism, of which I knew nothing at the time.

Within weeks, I belonged to a fellowship. I only lasted one more term in the doctoral program and lost track of Joyce until today. And here I am, getting close to the end of my preparation to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.

Would I have found this religious tradition anyway? Who knows? I had not found it after 30 years of life and 20 years of searching for a religion that made sense. But for that chance conversation, and for Joyce's compassion and caring, I might never have started down the path toward my call to ministry.

Is it any wonder that I believe in synchronicity? We just never know what impact even the smallest effort of reaching out to another person can have on their lives. Joyce, thank you so much for reaching out to me and starting these wheels in motion.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Value of Good Times

One of the reasons I began blogging was to express opinions about "big picture" issues and to discuss matters of ultimate importance. Usually, my posts border on the serious (perhaps ranting), because something has riled me up or otherwise made my hair stand on end.

Not today, folks. Today, the house special pizza with everything on it is free to all. Pull up a chair for yourself and your own muse and enjoy a slice on the house.

Oh, don't get me wrong...the world is still a mess. The economy is in the crapper, basic human rights remain in jeopardy across the globe, and our vision of beloved community seems a distant dream. Tomorrow, I may well go nuclear and blast some new injustice.

But, today, I am happy. And, there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I highly recommend it to everyone.

Why am I so happy that I risk my daily pizzatorium profits sharing my joy with you? There are many reasons, but the biggest of them is that after years of worthwhile work raising a family and helping others, I am pursuing my dream. I am preparing for a life in ministry - a life of hard work and commitment, a life that is enormously rewarding, and a life that my experiences have forged for me. I am living in a tiny apartment watching my life savings dwindle away, and I couldn't care less because I am doing what I love to do.

I've got my computer, Coltrane on the stereo, fresh-brewed coffee, and you, gentle reader. I'm working at a church that is amazing, but still can use my talents. I am meeting interesting people, exploring the greatest city on Earth, and entering a living historical tradition of courageous men and women who changed the world. And, for the first time in a long time, I've got the ability to appreciate it all and know just how lucky I am to have the chance to do the same.

That, of course, is the issue. Every day, people tell us how to live our lives. Companies spend millions to tell us what to buy, what new disease lurks in our future, and how to eat, smell, and look. Bosses tell us how to act and think. Society tells us what is right and wrong. And all of them pretend to tell you how to be happy.

Do you know how to be happy? This is how. Sit down and figure out for yourself what you want to do with your life. Then go do it. It really is that simple. Write down your goal on a piece of paper and post it on your refrigerator. Then make everything in your life serve that goal.

Is it easy? Of course not. Nothing worth having ever is. But, no one in the world can do it for you. And here is the secret. If you are putting off your goal because you are trying to help someone else achieve their goal, it doesn't work. Because, in the end, you can't fully help others until you have helped yourself. Until you have pursued your own goal, you are not in the right frame of mind to help another achieve theirs.

Is entry into the ministry a sacrifice? You bet - just ask any seminarian. The discernment process of becoming a minister is painful and frightening, and successful completion of the process causes wounds and loss. But, only by surviving this process, by thriving in this process and achieving this goal, can we as ministers help others to do the same.

So enjoy your pizza. Because when you leave the pizzatorium, I want you to think about your goal in life, whether you are on a path to achieve it, and if not, why not.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Grand Reopening of the Pizzatorium in New York!

My muse sleeps soundly in a corner of the kennel, resting after another challenging January of classes at Meadville Lombard Theological School. In the meantime, my life flies like pizza dough, stretching, awaiting an unknown assortment of toppings. After 42 years in Pittsburgh, I moved to New York City this week. I am now living in a first floor apartment in Forest Hills, just a few blocks from the 71st Street subway station and access to all this metropolis has to offer. After taking my son to Penn Station for the return train ride home, I walked up to Times Square. I stood in the center traffic island, along with the throng of tourists, gawking at the sight.

Throughout the week, I walked and explored the neighborhood. I am a five minute walk from groceries and hardware; laundry and pharmacy; bank, bagels, and Barnes and Noble; and any number of restaurants. Today, I found half a mile south on Metropolitan Avenue: a comics/collectibles store (run by a Pittsburgh Steelers fan!), a German restaurant, and an Irish pub.

And my apartment is small enough to force me to venture out often. I have all of the necessities of life -- books, music, my World War I posters on the walls, computer, and a bed. Sadly, I actually must begin working in another week. In the meantime, I was invited to the Metro NY LREDA winter retreat, which will provide a chance to catch up with some old friends and meet new colleagues. The retreat takes place in Murray Grove, the historic Universalist landmark of Thomas Potter and John Murray. What an awesome way to begin my internship - by touching base with this significant heritage of our movement.

So, my dough lies waiting. I can only imagine what inspiring condiments life has in store.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Network of Gratitude

This past Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, his Network of Mutuality words inspired me. The events of the past few weeks move me to write about my own life's network.

Entering the ministry elicits a broad range of emotions, from the exhilarating and passionate to the fearful and daunting. A life of ministry presents many paradoxes ... crowded solitude ... powerless authority ... an overwhelming sense of knowing and being inadequately.

Throughout the journey, incredible people dedicate themselves to our call. Their love and support remind us of the importance of our quest, the viceral need for our ministries.
  • To the members and staff of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh -- you will always be my home church; the gardeners who provided the fertile soil to plant the seeds of my call.
  • To the children and youth I served -- you fed my call and watched it grow toward maturity.
  • To religious educators everywhere -- you welcomed my contributions, validated my gifts, and continue providing support for my expanded call.
  • To my fellow seminarians -- you walk the road with me in love, and I eagerly anticipate years of mutual support and enduring care.
  • To my colleagues in New York -- I eagerly anticipate our year together, having already experienced your inviting arms of welcome.

Specifically during the recent weeks, let me also thank the following people:

  • Betty, a warm and tireless pillar of First Church, thank you for your encouragement and for coordinating a farewell that touched me and epitomized the work of teaching congregations.
  • Laura, after walking many miles together, you freed me to follow my call -- I wish you life's greatest happiness.
  • Jen, my co-pilot for many years at First Church, I can only hope to work with someone as talented and caring in my future churches.
  • Linda, your engaging warmth and professionalism made finding exactly the apartment I wanted in New York not only successful, but enjoyable.
  • Jennifer, an amazing and vibrant woman, your hospitality will endure in my heart and mind long after two weary nights for my body.

To all those who have gone before us...

To my parents who gave me my tools of humanity...

To my children who continue to teach me...

To those who share my passions and struggle for a better world...

To everyone I will meet and spend time with on this road of life...

Thank you.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Second Draft UUA Purposes and Principles

According to, an agenda item for the January meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association was the second draft of the new UUA Purposes and Principles prepared by the Commission on Appraisal. I am sure that many months of intensive discussion lie ahead of us on this matter.

I have concerns about a number of the proposed changes. I certainly agree with many comments I have read on some discussion lists that the new draft Sources section seems to represent a step backward as an expression of our religious heritage.

But, I will restrict my comments to one word in the current document - the word that most distresses me and addresses all of my other concerns with the current discussion. That word is found in the revised seventh principle, which the current draft has altered from:

"Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part" to
"Reverence for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."
I can well imagine that many people will see little difference in this modest appearing change. But, for the many thousands of Unitarian Universalists whose religious philosophy has moved beyond the construct of god, the new word carries ominous baggage.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of the word "reverence" contains the following as the first meaning: "honor or respect felt or shown : deference; especially: profound adoring awed respect." Following the link to the meaning of the word "deference" provides this amplification: "respect and esteem due a superior or an elder ; also: affected or ingratiating regard for another's wishes."

Anyone whose personal religious philosophy includes atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, humanism, and nontheism, among others, should be concerned about the alteration of this word. What is it exactly that we are considering "superior?" To what or whose wishes exactly are we ingratiating ourselves?

More details are available if one examines the synonyms of the word "revere."
revere, reverence, venerate, worship, adore mean to honor and admire profoundly and respectfully. revere stresses deference and tenderness of feeling. reverence presupposes an intrinsic merit and inviolability in the one honored and a similar depth of feeling in the one honoring. venerate implies a holding as holy or sacrosanct because of character, association, or age. worship implies homage usually expressed in words or ceremony. adore implies love and stresses the notion of an individual and personal attachment [my italics].

Parts of this summary give me little cause for concern. However, taken as a whole, I feel a distinct tone of theism infused in the meaning of this word. As one who has spent many years of his life moving beyond believing in an omniscient, perfect, holy, or even just superior force for "good" in the universe beyond what we as equal beings in all existence are capable of creating and preserving ourselves, I cannot support this proposed word change.

I must admit to finding it ironic that during the "language of reverence" debates of recent years, it never occurred to me to question the word "reverence" itself, until this proposed draft was released. Perhaps those responsible for this draft felt that the word "respect" did not reflect strongly enough our regard for the interdependent web of all existence. If that is the case, then I would propose modifying the existing principle to express our "deep respect," and might even go so far as to consider "ultimate respect," although I imagine others might challenge that modifier. But, "reverence" is not a word I am willing to support in this context.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Story of Heresy

During the last session of my Oral Traditions class here at Meadville Lombard Theological School this week, we ended with a storytelling festival. I thought about what story I wanted to tell, and came back to the story that is central to who I am as a Unitarian Universalist, an aspiring minister, and as a person.

You see, for me, the history of Unitarian Universalism centers on heresy. I take the meaning of heresy literally from the Greek hairesis, to choose. From Arius and Origen in ancient times, to Servetus and the Polish Brethren in the Middle Ages, to Theodore Parker and the Humanist Manifesto to modern times, our religion has been about free choice, and the free practice of religion. That story for me is best told by a fairy tale.

Once upon a time years ago, lived a young man named Henry. Henry was not a king or a prince; he wasn't a famous soldier or a general. He was a simple man just like everybody else. He dreamed dreams like other people. He studied hard in school like other people. He grew up and began working like other people. And, he lived by a code of ethics that influenced the choices he made throughout his life.

For instance, when Henry’s parents fell on hard times, he gave up some of his goals and used all the money he had saved to secure a home for them. When Henry married, he and his wife worked for years building their own home. As his children grew, Henry scrimped and saved all of the money he could, so that they would have a chance at a better life. Henry worked for 50 years and retired. After 50 years of marriage, his wife died. Henry died peacefully a few years later. And, his children and grandchildren continue to live happily ever after.

I know Henry’s story does not make a very glamorous fairy tale. I see no Pixar productions of Henry’s life anytime in the future. There are no mythical creatures, enchanted frogs, or genies who grant wishes. No talking animals populate the narrative, and nothing happens by magic. This fairy tale contains only the choices made throughout a lifetime and the consequences of those choices. Probably every one of you here today knows a Henry, or can identify yourselves in many ways with my father. Much of his story occurs in many typical lives.

My father’s parents immigrated to America from Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century. My grandfather was skilled in construction using timber – not a promising vocation for a nation of steel and skyscrapers. But, he chose to come to America to find a better life. My grandmother was excommunicated by the Catholic Church for divorcing her abusive husband. She chose to come to America to live free of dogma and oppression. They met and married here, raised four children, and struggled through the Great War, the Great Depression, and another great war.

When my father returned home from the Pacific in 1945, he could have joined the thousands of servicemen entering college. Instead, he chose to invest his life savings buying his parents a farm. He then took a job as a draftsman and worked his way up the ranks in a division of a major Pittsburgh corporation. He chose a job that allowed him to spend many hours each day at home with his family. And, he chose to spend his weekends volunteering to run his children’s activities, serving his city and his church, and carrying on his father’s tradition by creating works of art out of wood.

To my father, one’s investment choices reflect one’s values. He treasured family. He believed in neighborhood and community. He respected the creative process. Most of all, he was a futurist. No matter how distressing the news, or cruel the fates, my father could see the potential for good in a situation. With enough hard work and commitment, people can always make the world a better place. Sometimes, a helping hand or a just reward is all it takes for humankind to achieve its potential for good.

My father taught me many of the values that comprise my own philosophy of life. In the end, without family, community, love of and for others, and self-respect, money and possessions cannot fulfill our lives. His life may not have been the stuff of fairy tales, but he provided me with all of the will to dream and the desire to achieve them that I will ever need. Our stories require no magic lamps and leprechauns to grant us our wishes. We only need the will and the courage to make choices.