Saturday, October 07, 2006

How opinions change

As the Foley sex-page scandal works its way through the national consciousness, we are beginning to see the opinion expressed that it is all quite unfortunate that this scandal is taking attention away from the "important issues", the War in Iraq, the National Intelligence Estimate, Bob Woodward's book, the torture and warrantless wiretapping, the slow pace of Katrina recovery.

Yet, it appears that it is against the war in Iraq that the public has turned, and that turning includes turning toward electing Democrats to Congress.

All this turning has apparently gone on with fairly weak Democratic Party messaging against the war and the Administration, and without a public anti-war movement with a strong voice.

It raises the question of how do people change their minds in this political and information environment.

Maybe active argumentation, and the political rhetoric of persuasion, does not work anymore? The powerful speech against the war made by a politician, the leaflet decrying the War and urging mobilization for a demonstration, the ad in the New York Times signed by hundreds of opinion leaders, may not be persuasive anymore.

Maybe people change their minds in private, and through a process of seeking out the information that they want, and on their own timetable and schedule. They go to the Net and read the sites that give them the info that they want. I wonder if people don't resist "being sold" or "being propagandized" -- information and argument that is being directed at them. Instead, they prefer to actively seek the information that they want when they want it.

I also suspect, and I think that this has always been true, is that people don't actually read or listen to arguments in which opposing points of view clash in one setting. Instead, that clash of opinions occurs over time in their own minds, and that they usually seek out sources of information that confirm where they are all ready intuitively heading. The question is "is this where I really want to be?"

If the data about how many people are reading Daily Kos and other liberal blogs is at all true, then it is clear that strong antiwar sources of information have been consulted by many people over this period of massive public opinion shifting.

What this means for the church is this: we have to get better at providing sources of information that can be consulted at people's own schedule.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Puppy

We have gotten a puppy.
Mrs. Tradition and I have not been dog people, neither of us having a dog since we were children. There was a while when we had two cats, but that experiment ended badly, and Mrs. T. never liked cats at all anyway. (We got them from a freakish situation. We had a neighbor who worked at OHare Airport, and these two cats were put on a plane to Chicago and never retrieved. We took them before they went to the Farm where all the cats go to play forever. I sometimes wonder what kind of person buys a plane ticket for a cat to get rid of it. I no longer wonder what kind of cat would cause a person to do such a thing.
Anyway, back to the dog, who is as cute as anything that walked the Earth, ever. It is the Scarlett Johannson of little dogs, early Friends (the TV show, not the Quakers) level cute, with little girls in Mary Jane shoes cutieosity.
Our daughters engineered the placement of a small dog in our home to get us to quit making sighing grandparental noises in the presence of babies and pointed comparisons to their more fecund cousins who have done right by Mrs. T's sister. They think that the puppy will buy them some time.
All is well with the puppy.
There is the matter of housetraining. Which is a lot like toilet training, but without the assistance of cognitive reasoning, language skills, or disposable diapers. All the books about housetraining, (which I have read with the same level of concentration as the 19th recommended book of obscure Patristic fathers on the doctrine of the virgin mary in theology school -- meaning that I have looked at the cover and a random page here and there) seem to show people living in comfortable suburban houses with green and spacious lawns outside. Hence they say things like: if the puppy starts to sniff, circle and squat, say "no" and "outside" sharply and hustle the dog outside to the lawn.
Nothing about living on the third floor of an apartment building. So, I find myself running down the stairs, with puppy pee dripping off of my elbows. By the time, I get to the designated potty space outside (a little piece of urban scrap grass, from which I have tried to clear the occasional shard of broken glass -- no wonder she is so cautious), the puppy looks up at me with her adorable Jennifer Anniston cute eyes with a patient look that says "why are saying Potty, Potty, Potty to me like a madman. I just went. Why are we here? Why are your elbows all wet? Can we go inside now? Why do I, one of the cutest creatures in God's creation, have to live with this obviously disturbed human being? Can I sniff, circle and squat on your shirt?

Mrs. T. gets all that needs to be done. She is determined and firm. She understands the needs for limits, boundaries and procedures. If this puppy is ever trained, it will be a testament to her perserverance. Me, not so much.

We are sitting down to eat lunch today. The puppy is in the bathroom, which used to be the guest bathroom and it now her "safe room". She is whimpering a little, just to let us know that she misses us, who are just out of her sight and trying to enjoy a refreshing little lunch on a Saturday afternoon. For Mrs. T., this is just what is happening. For me, I feel like Alberto Gonzalez dining al fresco at Guantanamo Bay, listening to relaxing sounds of running water, coughing, sputtering and pleas for mercy. Mrs. T. says that she can see I am not having a good time with lunch. Thank you for noticing, say I.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Torture and Indefinite Detention Bill

Well, there is not much to say. Tristero over at Digby's Hullabaloo reminds us that the whole purpose of the bill was Kabuki theatre. The US Government is already doing everything we fear that it is. There were two purposes to the bill: one was to assert the theoretical right of Congress to regulate such activities by passing a law that legalizes the existing practices and, two, to lay a political trap for the DC Democrats by forcing them to vote against tactics the President says are necessary for the war on Terror.

Whatever small and vague limitations on executive power that certain Republican 'moderates' wanted to include in the bill were lost last week. Once it was clear that the bill would pass, the administration juiced up the bill with everything they would ever want.

The DC democrats did not rise to the bait offered. While opposing the bill, and reaching almost complete caucus unanimity on some amendments, it was clear that they did not plan a filibuster. Nothing would have pleased the Republicans more than a filibuster against the bill, allowing them to go to the electorate with the Democrats supposedly obstructing the war on terror on Capitol Hill. They have the votes of the Democrats against the bill to work with, but that was going to be true the minute the bills were introduced.

The GOP in DC is not unlike the Dems in DC. They forget that the winning and losing tactical battles around legislation in DC does translate to the rest of the country. The Republicans won this skirmish in Washington, but at what cost. They confirmed all across the country that the GOP stands for torture, indefinite detention and unchallenged executive power.

I believe that the hidden question moving this election is the question : is the modern Republican party seriously out of control and dangerously unchecked? Democrats have thought so for quite a while (since the impeachment of Clinton in fact), but now independents and moderates are just as concerned. And, if it is true, the traditional solution is well-known, and at hand: vote to divide government between the parties.

I think that the DC GOP outmaneuvered the DC Dems, but weakened themselves around the rest of the country. I think that when they run their inevitable ads that Senator X voted against the torture bill, it will not help them, because it confirms the worst suspicions about the GOP. They are losing the middle, and proving that they are more willing to torture people is not going to help them.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Worship and GA

I am more than willing to cut the GA planning committee some slack around how they schedule worship on Sunday at GA. I think that going away from the Sunday morning worship is a mistake because I grew to like the Sunday morning seeker oriented service. But figuring this stuff out is not my job. And perhaps closing with a worship service will seem right when we do it.

Since I suspect that many people will be heading home before 4 PM on Sunday, the time of the closing worship service. There is a plenary at worship time on Sunday, so quite a few people will seek other worship options Sunday morning. Worship at First Unitarian in downtown Portland should be full.

I think that it is important that we have significant worship at GA, and by significant, I mean worship in which the elected leaders of the association play substantive liturgical roles. I appreciate the fact that the preaching duties are spread around and that we get to hear from a variety of ministers from the GA pulpits. But I also want to hear sermons from the President of the UUMA, and sermons from the President of the Association. I think that that religious leadership often comes down to the ability to inspire or to cast a vision. The corporate worship service and the sermon are forms of speech designed to call forth expressions of visionary leadership.

Part of the community forming power of worship is that it forms and designates community leaders who gain authority by their sustained and repeated inspiration of others. The GA practice of rotating the most important preaching duties around to different ministers is like the lay-led fellowship which rotates the worship leadership around a group of competent speakers, none of which have the role of vision-caster for the group.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Planning Committee Speaks

The Planning Committee states their position (from the comments section)

There will be a full Sunday Worship Service, complete with a sermon by Rev. Josh Pawalek and music by the 1st UU Portland choir. The difference is that it will be in the afternoon. We will end with closing worship instead of the usual closing ceremony. Sunday's schedule will include morning spiritual practices, a pre-plenary hymn sing, a plenary session, a GA choir concert, a workshop/featured presentation session, and the closing worship service. (Local folks can attend their own congregation's service in the morning and the GA one in the afternoon.)
Closing worship will be the last event, 4-6 PM. In response to feedback from 06 attendees, we're trying to give people a chance to stay for all of GA and still get home to get to work Monday morning. We think that ending with a worship service actually elevates the importance of communal worship, not diminishes it.

The decision to shift items in the Sunday schedule was just made a few days ago--we haven't had a chance to get meeting minutes or web page material up yet. More info will get sent out shortly.

Beth McGregor
GA Planning Committee

Just A Comma

President Bush said to Wolf Blitzer:

"Yes, you see — you see it on TV, and that’s the power of an enemy that is willing to kill innocent people. But there’s also an unbelievable will and resiliency by the Iraqi people…. I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is — my point is, there’s a strong will for democracy."

We are told that the President likes to read history these days, and is concerned about his legacy. His comment about the present moment being just a comma in the long history of Iraq indicates that he has succumbed to the grandiosity of the historical perspective: the ability to see place the present moment into such a long view of history that it loses its moral significence.

The President, with his Iraqi invasion spiraling into greater and greater failure and calamity, is retreating out of the present moment into a fantasy of a future history.

What on earth does he mean by the phrase "when the final history is written on Iraq"? He talks as though history will produce a final consensus about what is happening. But, a serious reader of history knows that there is no final history ever written on anything. The writing of history opens more and more up to scrutiny as time goes by. All of the stories about Iraq that are now being suppressed and ignored will someday be opened up by historians. The US military will write their histories of this war. Iraqi historians will catalog every encounter between civilians and the US military. Political and diplomatic historians will write the history of everything that Bush and his administration have tried to hide.

The process of writing history does not reduce anything to commas; it eventually reveals everything that is hidden in the commas of the speeches of Presidents, and the columns of pundits, and the glib utterances of the foolish.

"You cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs." Mao Zedong. "History will absolve me." Fidel Castro.

Thus, always, of tyrants. The appeal beyond the present moment to some Olympian heights, where the lives of individuals no longer matter.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Sunday Morning at GA

The Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship has been negotiating to bring Kathleen Norris to General Assembly in Portland next June. And they have made that agreement and gotten GA Planning Committee co-sponsorship for the event. But along the way, the Planning Committee revealed that the Sunday morning worship service was being moved to later in the day and combined with the closing ceremony of General Assembly. Amidst our celebration of working this deal out about Kathleen Norris, this revelation almost slipped by unnoticed.

No Sunday Morning Worship at GA?

Sunday morning used to be set aside for the Service of the Living Tradition, at which ministerial transitions were honored and celebrated. Recently, the decision was made to move the Service of the Living Tradition to Friday night and reserve Sunday morning for a big UU seeker friendly service and make a strong effort to invite the hosting community to the service. I think that last summer was the first time that this was fully implemented, perhaps the second. And last year, Gail Geisenhainer a wonderful sermon in that service. I could see the logic and potential power of the decision.

But to move the Sunday morning worship to later in the day and combine it with closing ceremony? A closing ceremony is not necessarily a worship service. The closing ceremony is not when you invite guests. And an Association of Congregations, almost every one of which worships on Sunday morning, ought to worship on Sunday morning as well.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Cool Map Predicts Senate Races

I check this every so often, when I need a little cheer.

Ministerial Debt is a Systemic Problem

I was fortunate enough to go through seminary without incurring student loan debts. I went later in life, and my spouse has a good job.

Many of our newer ministers accumulate significent student loans while preparing for the ministry.

This is a not personal problem for them; it is a systemic problem in the way that ministers are formed in our present system.

  • Seminary education is expensive and getting more so all the time. We don't provide a lot of scholarships.
  • UU's require an internship as part of the preparation, and yet churches pay very little to interns. Often seminaries require internships as well, and charge tuition for the intern supervision.
  • UU's require Clinical Pastoral Education which pays nothing and costs money.
The inevitable result is that the candidate not only has to pay for the expensive seminary education, they also must take considerable time out of their working life to fulfill requirements of the practical side of their education. Without independent wealth, or a well-employed partner, debt is the best option.

Not only are large student loan debts the predictable consequence of the formation process, those debts have systemic effects.

New ministers spend the first parts of their careers trying to get out of debt, so they can start saving for retirement. As the age of incoming ministers get older, there is less time for retirement accumulation, assuming that it slowed or stopped during the formation period. Ministers who are debt-ridden have to shape their ministries around their paychecks. It means that more ministers become parish ministers in established churches. Church planting, startups, mission and evangelical ministries are out of the question. Community ministers gravitate toward the better funded institutions and agencies. Again, the bold, untried, experimental ministries and projects which are not well-funded are out of the question.

If you wonder why Unitarian Universalism is more "out there" -- creating ministries in poor and marginalized communities, among the young adults, away from the major metropolitan centers and university towns, in communities at risk, and with less safe and more controversial messages, part of the reason is the our system of formation burdens our newest and most fired up ministers with big student loans, and then pretends that they are the result of their own personal failures in financial planning.

"Tis the Season

It's that season again, when the invitations to ordinations and installations start arriving at your ministerial mailbox. Once again, the time of the year to drag your weary tuchas halfway across the state to schmooz with colleagues in a church parlor while eating cheese and crackers and little bundles of grapes. Once again, the time to enjoy the delightful process of watching ministers trying to form themselves into two parallel lines in a particular order. Let's see, will we sing "Rank by Rank" or "Bring, O Past, Your Honor" as we stroll into the sanctuary, resplendent in robes and stoles? I actually love it. You hang out with friends and you hear good preaching and see churches at their most hopeful, purposeful and optimistic.
The offerings taken usually go to the Living Tradition Fund, a fund administered by that bureau formerly known as the Department of Ministry. The Fund pays out all of its money every year in the form of aid to indigent retired ministers, scholarships for seminarians, and debt relief to ministers who accumulated crushing debt getting through seminary.

I write a check to the Living Tradition Fund and send it off to 25 Beacon Street whenever I receive an invitation to an ordination or installation. I make the contribution in honor of the ordinand, or installee, as I am sure that their name is inscribed with a quill in a giant leather bound volume with gilt page edges and marbled endpapers that rests on a burgundy velvet cushion in the Vault of Sacred Memory there on Beacon Hill.

Go Thou, and Do Likewise!

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Antiwar Movement since 9-11

As I sort through my own thinking and actions over the last five years, as a part of my own accounting for the War against Iraq, I come to my allergic reaction to the antiwar movement in this era.

If you know me, and have suffered through my frequently repeated autobiography, you know that I was an anti-war activist in the 60-70s and then progressed into more and more radical politics until I ended up in a pretty strange place, before I chucked all of that. Reclaiming my Unitarian roots was a huge step to the right for me.

I became politically, first a Jackson Democrat, and then a Clinton Democrat, mostly because I appreciated his pragmatism and his skills at political combat. I am usually repelled by what in Chicago used to be called "goo-goo's", or good-government types: idealistic, intellectual, policy-oriented, honorable. Give me Jack Kennedy over Hubert Humphrey; give me Robert Kennedy over Eugene McCarthy; Give me Bill Clinton over Paul Tsongas, and in the choice between Bill Bradley and Al Gore, let me just shake my head.

All of which is to let you know that I allergic to beautiful losers and to all sorts who try to make the world a better place by the simple peaceful radiance of their own good example.

I am also allergic to the Marxist-Leninist Left and its embrace of totalitarianism.

So, on the beautiful blue skied day of 9/11, I was sitting at home, a twitching and irritable lump of political allergies and aversions, and lacking a clear political programme and foreign policy, and then someone called and I started a long bout of TV watching.

At the first emergency memorial service I attended, which was within a very short time, I heard one of those prayers in which the pastor prayed that "we would turn away from anger, vengeance and violence." Obviously, the good reverend was not personally tempted toward such things, but was confessing other people's sins for them. I had the sudden desire to throw up, and my interactions with the antiwar movement continued to have a similar effect on me for weeks and months and years afterward.

I became emotionally supportive of the war against Iraq, in part, because the antiwar movement opposed it. Not my finest hour, nor my most best thinking. I don't think I am alone in this, though.

More in Part 2

The Antiwar Movement since 9-11 Part2

Why did the antiwar movement repel me so much since 9-11, even though they were, on the issue of Iraq, right on the core policy question: to invade Iraq would result in a quagmire, which would make life much worse for the Iraqis, and have seriously negative consequences for the United States and the American people.

Emotional reasons: the peace movement never seemed to be on the same page emotionally with the rest of us.
  • Yes, they thought 9/11 was tragic and awful, but only in the context of a world full of tragic and awful things. Kind of like a friend who while sympathizing with the death of someone you love can't help but mention that a lot of people you don't know died even worse deaths.
  • Yes, they could understand how other people were angry, but they seemed more afraid of that anger than anything else. The anger expressed by ordinary citizens was a fearful problem that needed to be managed. Even the widespread display of flags etc. seemed to be worrisome to many anti-war and peace activists. It finally hit me at one point: the peace movement was uncomfortable with ordinary Americans publicly expressing any emotional response to 9/11. While their rhetoric acknowledged anger and national solidarity as normal responses to 9/11, which even they shared, the sights and sounds of ordinary Americans expressing those same emotions set off alarm bells in their heads. I realized that much of the antiwar and peace movements feared the American people.
  • I remember feeling at the time time that the peace folks I knew had taken up a position of swimming against the emotional tide. Where people expressed fear, they argued that our expectations of safety were a privilege denied to many. Where people expressed anger, they pointed out that it was possible to see that we might have deserved this. Where people expressed national solidarity, they sang "This is my Song."
The emotional disjoint between the peace movement and the rest of the country was obvious within days of 9/11. It was impossible not to read the substantive policy proposals they made in the same light. I'll talk about that in Part 3.

The Antiwar Movement since 9-11 Part3

On a political level, the antiwar movement from 9/11 on was emotionally disconnected from the rest of the country.

It's substantive arguments were also off the mark, drawing the wrong lessons from history.

  • The unexamined premise of the peace movement's analysis of the world situation is still Maoist. On the one side is the Imperialist Superpower, the United States. And on the other side is the worldwide United Front Against Imperialism. While virtually no one in the peace movement defended the Taliban, or Saddam Hussien, no one seemed to have an analysis which did not start and end with the necessity for restraining the United States.
  • While not defending the Taliban or Saddam Hussien, the antiwar forces also did not analyze them, nor Al Qaeda. The antiwar movement had been silenced during the Iranian crisis of the Carter administration and has never regained its voice because it could not fit Islamic fundamentalism, as a political force, into its unexamined premise of the United Front Against Imperialism leftover from its anti-Vietnam heyday.
  • It is another feature of the leftover Maoism of the antiwar movement was that their rhetoric always seemed to focus on economics -- the roots of terrorism was third world poverty, not religious grievances, nor political paralysis in the Middle East.
  • The antiwar movement tended to view the rhetoric about "democracy promotion" as culturally imperialist (democracy promotion was always described as "imposing Western-style democracy"), which carried the connotation that some people were not ready for democracy.
The bottom line was that the antiwar movement was right about what not to do about Iraq: do not invade, and having invaded, withdraw and come home. But being right about the policy is not the result of being right about the analysis of the situation.

Out of tune emotionally with the American people, and unable to provide any real wisdom about what is happening, the antiwar movement has played a negative role in the last five years. The turning of the people against the war has come from their observation of the failures of the administration's policy, not from the leadership of antiwar activists. In fact, public opinion has moved most against the war during those periods when the antiwar movement has been silent.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

9-11: The Day We Forgot Everything

In retrospect, it seems that the big shift in consciousness that occurred after 9-11 was that we forgot everything that we had learned in Vietnam. In particular, we forgot that there are our powers are not unlimited, that there are other actors in the world, and that there are times, when even the armed forces of the United States cannot acheive their goals.

George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and other leaders of the administration had never learned these particular lessons from Vietnam, and had clung all these years to the delusion that the US was self-defeated there, by a failure of the will.

But many others, who did know better, forgot what they knew after 9-11. We had been hurt; we felt vulnerable; we were angry; the anger made us feel strong; the world seemed a different place because we were feeling strong.

It was said that "everything changed on 9-11", which is rather hard to believe. More accurately, everything looked different to us after 9-11, because our emotional state had changed.

  • And so, the cautious realism about the use of military force was forgotten
  • And so, the truth that most people in the world are not willing to be pawns in the global ideological rivalries by which we organize the world was forgotten
  • And so, the truth that, in an open information world, that a great power will learn that its army is being defeated from its own citizens, and not from its own messengers from the front, was forgotten.
  • And so, the truth that the "national will" is a not resource deployable by the national government, any more than the weather is, was forgotten.
  • And so, the truth that most Americans, from the heights of power to the rank and file soldier or marine in the field simply does not know enough about the history, politics and culture of other countries to be anything but foreign invaders and occupiers, was forgotten.
If the lessons of Vietnam were forgotten on 9-11, the last five years have been a testing of the opposite proposition: that the reason why the US failed in Vietnam was a failure of national will. The administration has gone to great lengths to summon up the national will to fight the War in Iraq: overblown and deceptive intelligence, Churchillian rhetoric, appeals to the high values of democracy and human rights, secrecy, news manipulation, endless repetition of clearly refuted falsehoods. Their control of Congress has meant no Congressional hearings where questions can be raised. They have Fox News, and talk radio and countless blogs. And yet, the national will to fight this war steadily weakens. Why? Because the fact that our intervention in Iraq is failing is to obvious to hide. And it is failing for all the reasons that were predictable, if we remember what we learned in Vietnam.

Digby, one of my favorite bloggers, has pointed out that before 9-11, America was awash in nostalgia and sentiment for World War II and the "greatest generation." He comments that after 9-11, the nation quickly adopted WW2 as the lens through which we would view this new situation. For baby boomers, it was to forget our own experience in favor of a sentimentalized, simplified, cinematic, ersatz memory of our parents experience.

Of course, it was bound to fail.

My 9-11 Recollection

Is there a rule that you have to post your personal recollections of 9-11 if you want to have a blog? I may have missed that it in the Blogger terms of use paragraph that I clicked without reading. Sorry. In case it is a requirement, here is mine.
It was a nice day. I was at home, doing nothing. Somebody called. I watched TV for a really long time after that.

There, that should do it.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Labor Day Election Preview

In 1994, Adrienne Rich wrote this poem:

And now as you read these poems
-- you whose eyes and hands I love
-- you whose mouth and eyes I love
-- you whose words and minds I love --
don't think I was trying to state a case
or construct a scenery:
I tried to listen to
the public voice of our time
tried to survey our public space
as best I could
-- tried to remember and stay
faithful to the details, note
precisely how the air moved
and where the clocks hands stood
and who was in charge of definitions
and who stood by receiving them
when the name of compassion
was changed to the name of guilt
when to feel with a human stranger
was declared obsolete.

(from Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995, W.W. Norton, New York, NY)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Religious Liberalism and Tolerance

The UU World Online site has been considering the question raised by Sam Harris as to whether the commitment to tolerance disarms religious liberalism in the struggle with fundamentalism. Warren Ross as a posting laying out the issue and asking:
So now, as freedom, reason, and tolerance are all under siege in our society, does self-preservation require religious liberals to abandon our commitment to religious tolerance?
He quotes William Murray of Meadville Lombard as saying,"What I would say about tolerance is that we cannot tolerate intolerance."

This posing of the question as a paradox of the virtue of tolerance is quite silly, if you ask me.

How can the tolerant be intolerant of the intolerant without becoming intolerant themselves? What a deep Zen like koan to perplex the mind of deep thinkers everywhere.

Exclusivist, Universalist religions believe that they are called to convert the world to their single truth. The two largest religions in the world: Christianity and Islam both have this gear.

The question is not whether we religious liberals are prepared to tolerate them. Of course, we are. Do we have a choice?

The question is whether religious liberals will willingly give such religions power over people who are not believers. Of course we will not.

The issue is not the nuances and paradoxes of tolerance; the issue is power.

The religiously tolerant and the religiously intolerant can co-exist, but only when the religiously tolerant have the power.

In the United States, because of the Constitution, the First Amendment and the history of its interpretation by the Judiciary down through the years, the political power of the religiously tolerant is institutionalized and guaranteed.

Religous Liberals ought to be quite clear that we will fight with all available means, and with the ferocity of junkyard dogs, to preserve our political power, against all those who would challenge it.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Accountability for the crimes against Iraq and the Constitution

It becomes more clear daily that war crimes have been and are still being committed against the people of Iraq, and that the Administration is conducting a illegal war and by illegal means. In Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, especially in its treatment of captured people, members of the armed forces of the United States have been given orders that violate the Geneva Conventions and have been thus, placed by the chain of command at risk of potential war crimes charges.

The high officials of the Bush Administration bear the heaviest responsibility for these actions. They must be held accountable. The war in Iraq is the greatest military and political and strategic blunder made by the US in decades. It has has damaged our military, our international standing, and our overall safety. And it has brought Iraq, a nation that languished under a dictatorship before, out of its relative authoritarian calm, to the very gates of hell -- a society in chaos, disintegrating, where the lives of men, women and children are wasted daily.

It has been a political, military, diplomatic and most importantly, a moral disaster.

And as I have said, the high officials of the Bush Administration: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Rove, Libby, Addison, Hadley and others bear the major burden of responsibility.

But they did not act alone. Just as in the case of other criminal actions of the state, many people share responsibility:

  • Members of the armed forces, who had the information necessary to see what was legal and what was not.
  • Members of Congress, members of the Executive agencies, Judges who have the duty to investigate and oversee executive branch actions.
  • Operatives of the political machine that kept the war criminals in power when challenged in the electoral system.
  • The press and media which did not investigate, but turned away from this story.
  • Citizens who voted for the war criminals, and the advocates who agitated for the war.

It is frightening, and sobering, and sickening to consider how many people in the United States contributed to, or enabled,this war.

I believe that each citizen of the United States is morally obligated to make a self-assessment, to take a moral inventory, and come to understand precisely how they enabled these crimes to be committed.

It will not do to argue that it is all Bush's fault. Nor will it do to say that "we are all responsible" in some vague and undifferientated way.

For us who are citizens and amateur advocates, who do not have the power of government in our hands, or who do not speak to the masses, it is incumbent on us to analyze our thinking and our speaking during this war. What arguments were persuasive to us, and which were not? What arguments did we spread from our little node in the network of private communications that are how most people are informed and persuaded?

All of this matters greatly. Some people are arguing already that the threat of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is sufficient to require military force to prevent. We may end up in the debate against the next war without having summarized our roles in the last one.

As Jefferson said, "When I consider that God is just, I tremble for my country."

Monday, August 28, 2006

On Vacation

This is the final week of the summer, and I am on vacation at last. As one of the few UU ministers I know who works through the summer, this one week break between the summer and the Ingathering service is always especially welcome.
We head to Minnesota, to a house on a lake to spend time with family. It's relaxing and I need it.
I always bring the wrong books on vacation. Serious books that are going to be useful for later -- I even spent some time today with a big book that I need to read for a study group. Eyes glazed over and off to sleep I went. Fortunately I have a Carl Haissan in the backpack.
I am also aware that last year on this vacation, we sat transfixed before the TV and watched the horror show that was Katrina in New Orleans unfold on the screen. I will never forget the slow emotional progression of those days. What started out as just another hurricane story on the news, turning to a serious story that required some real attention, and then on to that kind of news event that takes over hours of every day, and hooks you into that TV crisis land and then moving even beyond that, into a realization that something truly horrific was happening that leapt from the screen into the totality of your life, and even into your dreams, and the world was changing forever, and that the anger we felt was not just a stage of grief, but legitimate and deserved.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

"Islamofacsism" -- why I don't use the word anymore

In the period between 9/11 and the Iraq war, the word "Islamofascism" seemed to be a useful word -- a single word that described the anti-liberal current in some of the visible Islamic movements around the world.

But then, the War in Iraq actually happened, and then Iraq actually and really began to disintegrate into a Civil War. Most of the forces fighting against each other in Iraq could have been, or are right now, designated as "Islamofascist," including the Sunni Insurgents, the Shiite militias, the "foreign fighters", the Baathist "dead-enders." The reality of the Iraqi Civil War demonstrated that the word "Islamofascism" does not describe anything that actually exists in the real world.

Of course, there are anti-liberal and anti-modern ideas in some currents of Islam, and yes, there are some Islamic political actors who have totalitarian agendas.

Would that those who argued that "9/11 changed everything" would also recognize the outcome of the US Invasion of Iraq changes everything as well. (In a world in change is constant, does any assertion that a single event changes everything make any sense at all?)

Reality shreds the language that we create to describe it, which is why that accurately describing what it really going on right now is the hardest work of all.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

It's the heroin snorting, porn-addled, leather-vested, fanny-packing grandfather of Olive, Little Miss Sunshine, that is the ogre of the movie. He's played by Alan Arkin as an erupting fountain of genial obscenity. Stanley Klawans, in his Nation review of the movie, says that the no one explains the yellow VW bus, but the VW bus explains everything else, and I am following up on that comment. The bus must have been the grandfather's; there is no way that anyone else would have acquired it. The grandfather is a cartoon of the baby boomers, and the movie is about the legacy that we, the baby booming generation, have left our children and grandchildren. The movie, which is sweet and winsome, has, at its heart, a devastating critique of the Boomers, as parents. Our legacy is a VW bus which they cannot easily drive, doesn't have a first gear, has to be push-started, blows its horn uncontrollably, and when the chips are really down, the doors have to be removed for them to get out of. Our children can hardly get where they want to go with the vehicle that we have left them.

The first thing that we know about Grandpa is that he snorts heroin. He doesn't think that his kids or grandkids should snort heroin, but it is OK that he does because "he is old." In a moral universe defined by 'situational ethics', old age creates a situation in which there are no consequences for what would be unwise behavior among younger people. Older people are going to die anyway, so nothing can have a worse effect, so, therefore, everything is allowed. When it comes to sexual behavior, it is the same. His advice to the young men in the family is to have as much sex as possible with as many women as possible. Approaching the end of life, Grandpa is a distillation of the "please yourself" ethic of the baby booming generation. The "triumph of the will."

Do I think that this is the way that my age cohort really is? Not really, but that is not the point. The point is that is what the generations that follow us have concluded to be our operative ethics.

Richard, the direct son of Grandpa, has understood how culturally appropriate this ethic is in this society. He has tried to commercialize the willfulness that he has inherited as a self-help program which tries to teach people to be "winners" and "the put the habits of losers behind them." One of the strands of the plot is that this effort fails, despite his heroic and repeated reinvestment in the idea that losing is only in the mind.

It soons become clear that Grandpa is really just so much dead weight and baggage that must be carried by the generation that follows.

The end of the movie is quite touching. In the end, this family unites and pulls together to protect Olive from complete humiliation which had been created by Grandpa. In the end, loyalty to family is the supreme value.

This is not just a sentimental, feel-good, life-affirming happy ending for a movie. It is a stone-cold, razor-sharp and completely unmerciful statement of generational antogonism. The children of the baby-boomers, the children who have grown up in the most broken homes as any generation in history, say that loyalty to family is the most important value. It is stunning declaration of what they feel that they have been denied, what they never received.

Not since "Four Weddings and A Funeral" has a light comedy carried such an insightful and angry punch to our collective solar plexus

Well, that was weird and unexpected

The guy selling movie tickets charged me the discounted senior citizen rate without my asking for it, nor even asking me how old I was. This particular theatre, in this particular neighborhood, classifies those over 55 as seniors, but the average age of those hanging around the theatre neighborhood seems to be about 22.

Anyway, I never got in anywhere before for the cheaper rate.

Expect many more movie reviews !

BTW, we saw "Little Miss Sunshine." A lot of familiar elements combined well.

More on that later. I gotta go to church !

Thursday, August 17, 2006

What I Fear

We have reached the point that the President of the United States and his administration no longer have any real credibility left. This has been true with the world at large for quite a while, and has also been true with the left side of the political spectrum in the United States. Now, it is true of the center, and even among some on the right side of the spectrum.

The nation has been poorly governed before, and has known that it was being poorly governed in the past, but this situation is particular and different. For it is in the matters of the utmost seriousness that this President is most untrustworthy: national security and commitment to the basic norms and covenants of democratic constitutionalism.

What I fear is that the United States will come under a terrorist attack. I believe that, at this point, so many people would doubt the official story of the event that it would trigger a political crisis.

What I fear is that the present administration would launch a preemptive attack against Iran and that most people would not believe their arguments for its necessity.

What I fear that is that a close outcome of the midterm elections -- one in which Republicans narrowly maintain control of one or both houses of Congresses -- would not be seen as legitimate or honest.

The top officials of the present administration are in genuine risk of being indicted for war crimes, under US law, and the Supreme Court has already declared all of their potential defenses to be without merit.

In short, any serious problem demanding governmental action in the next two years will place the nation into uncharted territory.

I do not have much hope that the Democratic Party, or even Congress under the control of the Democratic Party, will be reliable grown-ups in the next few years. My hope from them is that they will gain enough positions of power to demand the truth of what has happened since 2000. They will be instruments that will bring this administration to heel, but only because such action is being demanded of them by a civil society mobilized to defend democracy, civil liberties and the constitution.

Liberal Religion faces new tasks in the coming period of history. It is time for us to start preparing for what lies ahead.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Unitarian Universalism in Context

My "zeitgeist" windsock has been extended out in a new direction, which means that the weathervanes at the top of our old New England churches should start turning. I know that I tend to see the world turning more rapidly than it actually does, but it makes me alert to changes in the climate. I am the hypochrondriac canary in the coal mine -- "say guys, don't you think it smells a little funny right now?"

I want to consider the following possibility: that the long flow of the conservative reaction to the liberatory movements of the 60's has crested and is, now, ebbing. There is a lot of evidence for it, and, of course, the future has not happened yet, so I may be premature. But whether it is true now in 2006, it will be true someday, soon.

That rightward reaction, I think began in 1968, when Nixon was elected, co-opting the ideologically conservative, anti-New Deal movement of Goldwater as the ideologues of a much nastier mass movement against radicalism. GW Bush was politically formed in the heat of those late 60's struggles -- the privileged frat boy who detested the radicals of the day, and who has spent a lifetime trying to prove them wrong.

We can argue the historical analysis, but this is my question.

Unitarian Universalism was institutionally created in 1962. It's infancy was a period of great leftward movement culturally, politically and religiously. But most of our institutional history has been spent in a period of cultural, political and religious Reaction, a Thermidor, a period that my personal zeitgeist windsock says is coming to an end. What has been the dialectical relationship between Unitarian Universalism and this broader rightward flow?

I can see three modes that we have related to the broader conservative flow around us: retreat, accomodation and resistance. Much of our internal debates have been over the whens, the wheres and the hows of each of these modes of response.

For example, much of our theologizing has been in retreat from a resurgent conservative trend in evangelical protestantism. With the exception of some of the UU Christians, UU's no longer even wish to inhabit the same theological universe as other Protestants in the USA. We don't try to answer the same questions.

In terms of public ministry, you can see all three trends at work. Much of our internal talk has been in a retreat mode. For example, I think that our discussions of anti-racism have been primarily arguments between liberals and radicals, and everywhere I think that when the discussion is between those two poles, we are in a retreat mode, talking amongst ourselves and not engaging the outside environment.

One of the few places that we genuinely resist the rightward flow has been on GLBTQ issues.

But internally to many churches, I have seen case after case where the internal discussion of current events have accommodated the larger political trends. Political conservatives within Unitarian Universalism have claimed victim status against the liberal hegemony, and have been able to freeze the discussion.

Now, this puts me into an uncomfortable position. I have long been a "free churcher" in my approach to politics and the church. I don't like the resolutions that we pass at GA and it appalls me whenever I hear of a church adopting "a statement of conscience" for or against this or that. (Churches don't have consciences; individuals do. Organizations have platforms, statements of unity and creeds.) Like most neo-traditionalists in the UUA (you know who you are, so don't act shocked), I have worried that the UUA was turning into a secular political organization. I have written on this subject before there were email lists, back when you had to kill a few trees to make your point.

But these days, when the windsock is stretched out another way, I wonder whether was a cheap accommodation to bullying wrapped in a whine. Was it part of a larger pattern in which social gospel was silenced between 1968 and now? In 1968, the politically active church was present, and vocal, and people knew that it stood against racism, poverty, oppression and war. Now, the politically active church are conservative theocrats, the ground machine of the Republican party. Not every denomination was converted from left to right; Unitarian Universalism would never be, but was it neutralized?

So the picture might be this: one trend is a retreat into a progressively more radical issue stances at the national level, while in individual churches, a relative small number of conservatives complain about their marginalization, while the center steers the church into the safety of hands-on charity, and fundraising. Meanwhile, the prophetic role of the liberal church atrophied.

These are big issues, involving almost all of our history, and for many, much of our lives. But the times call for taking a long view and seeing the biggest picture possible.

No More Elevator Speeches !

The Lizard Eater over at the Journey contrasts the "elevator speech" (how would you explain Unitarian Universalism between the first and sixth floors?) and "testimony" (how would you explain how your faith has changed your life?). She calls for each of us to think through and write out our testimony, and provides a paragraph of instructions for thinking about one's testimony. Good stuff !

I think that she has taken an instruction for preparing Christian testimony and changed it to a Unitarian Universalist context. I guess that she did a "find and replace" of "Christian etc." with "Unitarian Universalist etc." And I guess that she did a "find and replace" of "Jesus Christ" with "my church." I don't know that for sure, but that is how it seems to me. Here is the quote.

Personal Testimony

One of the most helpful things Unitarian Universalists can do is write out their personal testimony. This exercise will help you think through in your own mind what your church has done in your life and will prepare you to share your story simply and clearly with others. Sharing how you found out about UUism is one of the best ways of witnessing. It is particularly helpful in presenting UUism to relatives and close friends, usually the most difficult people to whom to witness.

In sharing the story of your experience:

1. Make it personal—Don't preach. Tell what involvement in your church has done for you. Use the pronouns "I", "me", and "mine".

2. Make it short—Three or four minutes should be enough time to deal with the essential facts.

3. Keep your church central—Always highlight what belonging there has done for you.

Please note: If your testimony includes a previous negative church experience, do not mention the name of that church or denomination because it creates needless antagonism in those who are listening to your story.

Try writing down your personal testimony just the way you'd tell it to a non-UU. Make the story of your finding it so clear that another person hearing it would know how find out about Unitarian Universalism. Tell a little about your life before you found UUism; then tell about your finding it, how you came to trust it, and something of what it has meant to belong — the feeling of being around people who also want to explore “meaning,” assurance of their support of you on your journey, and other ways your life or outlook has changed. If you have been a UU for some time, be sure that your testimony includes some current information about the continuing effect of your religion and church in your life.

As you prepare your story, reflect on opportunities to share it. Think of two or three people whom you would particularly like to tell about your church in your neighborhood, at work, or at school. Then take the first opportunity to share your testimony with them.

In conclusion, remember that you do not have the power in yourself to convince anyone of spiritual truth. As you think of those with whom you desire to share your personal testimony, be sure to consider whether this is an appropriate topic to share with that person.

Witnessing is a style of living—you are a witness at all times. Loving others and showing your genuine concern for them are practical ways to communicate Unitarian Universalism. You also witness by your life. Actions are often more revealing than words. Your actions, however, are not sufficient to communicate to another the message of Unitarian Universalism. You need to witness by your words—to identify openly as a Unitarian Universalist and to tell others about the benefits of membership. One of the most effective means of communicating this to another person is the story of how the church has worked in your life—your personal testimony.

If so, there is an interesting presumption there: it is the church that saves. I don't want to repeat the argument that "religious community" is insufficient as a source of transcendence. Some agree and some disagree.

So, let's push the question back further into our own history. The testimony that I hear from UU's often is the story of "why I decided to join this church, and how well it has worked out for me." It is a testimony of affiliation, not a testimony of conversion. Why I thought what I was thinking at the time that I joined is unexplored.

So, what happened that you became a religious liberal, someone to whom a UU church could possibly appeal? From what were you converted?

A story for a minute, not my own. I had occasion to talk at length with a woman involved in one of the churches in my past. She was a very committed pagan, and sympathy for paganism is one of my slowest-growing edges. What became clear though in the talking was that the core of her conversion to religious liberalism was something else altogether. She was a white woman from Mississippi, of baby boomer vintage, and from a conservative Baptist background. She explicitly said that the thing that got her in motion was the desire to break away from the white racism of her extended family.

What is at the core of your religious liberalism and when and how did you agree to let it lead your life? Some suggestions:

  • an affirmation of the power of reason, of thinking, of science, as opposed to superstition
  • an affirmation of the goodness of your body and sexuality, as opposed to shame
  • an affirmation of "the other," as opposed to prejudice and dismissal.
  • an affirmation of adventure, as opposed to routine and tradition.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Three generations, at least

Over at A People So Bold, Clyde asks the question: is the form of worship that we continue in most Unitarian Universalist congregations a product of a different time and a different social set up?

You bet.

And probably always so.

I am aware that the worship of the church I serve is speaking, with great difficulty, to at least three generations of worshippers.

There are the seniors, the boomers and the youngers. To the seniors, the form and tone of the service is crucial: they want a dignity, a stateliness, an unhurried formality; they want excellence. They want the worship service to have a smooth surface.

For the youngers, what is most important and real in the service is the spontaneous that pokes out of the smooth surface of the service -- the ad lib or extemporaneous comment, the unexpected happening. It is as though they want to see what is living beneath the surface, what is barely contained by the service.

I don't think that I could even begin to fully catalog the how the different generations bring different expectations and standards of judgement to the worship experience.

It falls to us, as worship leaders, to try to hit the style and form that speaks across such a broad age range. At least, that is our task if we intend to lead worship in a broadly intergenerational setting. It is possible to go another way and create a worship experience that is age and subculturally specific -- the boomer church, the young adult church, the classic elder church, the youth culture church. I can understand the appeal of that, and if I was trying to plant a new church, it might make more sense to go that way. But that's not what I have been called to serve.

So, I, and other ministers in traditional church settings, have to try to do a slow and stately dance of constant innovation, keeping a form of worship going that is both comfortable and familiar to the 80 year olds and yet does not seem antiquated and paralyzing to 20 year olds.

We are in the midst of some great cultural upheavals, and it seems that the young really live in a different world than the old. Technology is creating different subcultures. I have people who are not served by the CD recordings we make of our services, because they don't have CD players and don't know how one works. When the youth group talks about communicating with each other through My Space and Facebook, I feel like Senator Stevens wrestling with the clogged internet tubes.

I don't suppose that a church like the one I serve is for everyone; it asks for a willingness to accept a certain strangeness in return for an opportunity to be in a multi-generational community.

I do think that the sermon form will endure the changes that are coming. One thing that is a cultural constant, between the elders and even the newest forms of communication, is that people want to hear the undiluted, unfiltered, direct and authentic communication of someone who is unbought and unbossed. That has been the appeal of all new media forms since the advent of talk radio in the 80's. It is the common appeal of everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Bill O'Reilly, to Jon Stewart, to Andrew Sullivan, to Kos and Atrios.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Consumerism, Entertainment and Worship

Before I was ordained, and still in seminary, a minister I knew and respected confided to me that he was afraid, at times, that he was becoming an entertainer, putting on a good show. I am aware of that in myself, as well. Certainly, I am aware that leading worship is a performance, and that people in the pews can like it, or not like it, and that they will let you know.

I also remembering preaching a sermon in a class at seminary, in which I "made 'em squirm" by being provocative and confrontational. One of my fellow students remarked that his folks "liked it when I beat em up a little" before preaching the gospel. So, there is an entertainment value even in making the congregation uncomfortable.

These anecdotes from years ago are only meant to say that some ministers have been aware of the temptation of entertaining the congregation for a while.

Recently, I hear this critique of the temptation faced by the minister sliding into a critique of the shallowness of the congregation. They view worship as consumers. They "shop" for churches. They are looking to be entertained.

Tsk, Tsk and Tut, Tut!

O Lord, if Thou has called me to be a minister, then why hast Thou not supplied me with a congregation worthy of my ministering?

Isn't our task to meet people where they are?

There is also the obvious irony in the smallest and most highly educated religious movement in the country becoming concerned that it might be attracting the wrong sorts of people, who are coming for the wrong reasons.

I beleive that the cause of this confusion on our part is that we have our priorities backwards. Unitarian Universalism seems to believe that our principle task is to build religious communities, which we define as being the active members of our church/congregation. The worship service is the way that we explain and enact the religious community in the hopes that people will be attracted through the service into joining the religious community. The service is the show that we put on to get them to join. So, if people come and participate in the worship service, but don't become active in the religious community, then it means that there is either something wrong with the service, or something wrong with them. If they just want to partake of the worship service, then it must be that they are consumers.

In fact, the reason why we see them as consumers is because we have conceived of worship as a form of advertising.

To take worship seriously means that we have to be willing to see it as an end in itself. That what matters is that people come and worship with you and yours, and find it an occasion of reflection and redirection in their lives. Even if you don't know their names, and they never join the church, or make a pledge. It would be better to have a weekly attendence of 800 people, with 100 pledging members than to have 300 pledging members and only 200 there on Sunday morning. That scenario might be one part of the future.

Friday, August 04, 2006

No, It's not true

that I killed off my old blog, Prophet Motive, because I am trying to cover up the fact that the aforementioned Prophet was on the record as endorsing Joe Leiberman for President. Really, it was just technical problems and I had run out of things to say at a certain point. And, to be honest, after endorsing Joe Leiberman for President, is there anything left to say?

I refer you to my profile regarding my claims of Olympian Wisdom.

I do believe that all of us must make a moral accounting for where we were, what we did, and what we did not do, and how we evaluated the results of our words and actions when our country permitted its government to reach out and bring the people of Iraq to the gates of hell. It was a systemic failure of our entire political culture. My congregation has heard me address my own thinking about my own practice on this question, but not yet in a systematic way. My summarization is still in process, and it is not easy.

I also think that the anti-war movement has different, but related, work to do. Why was it so ineffective? Indeed, why did the great public shift against the war occur only after the antiwar movement had fallen silent? Why did it seem irrelevant and disengaged with the real questions of post 9-11 security?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

the Manifesto

If anyone doesn't get Peacebang's Beauty Tips for Ministers, here is the whole good news of it, summarized, enumerated, explicated, broken down for ya, encapsulated, made flesh so it might live among you, and preached without fear or favor.

Beauty Tips For Ministers: Love And Care For All Of You

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Troubles in Academia

In a terse statement, it was announced that the 18 month long discussion about merging Starr King and Meadeville-Lombard have come to naught.

Both of these schools are in financial trouble.

Over 60% of our new UU ministers are preparing at other theological schools.

I am not sure that I can tell what the essential task of Unitarian Universalist scholarship is now.

The UUA gives about a quarter million dollars each year to each of these two schools, making it, and consequently, all of us rank and file UU's, stakeholders in this situation.

Elementary principles of good management suggest that it is folly to keep investing in organizational structures that are not succeeding. It seems like this is a good time to take out the proverbial blank sheet of paper and start thinking afresh about how to best spend a half-million dollars a year for the purpose of educating our future religious leaders.

Lee Barker, President of Meadville-Lombard has since sent out the following message.

Meadville Lombard continues to believe in a vision for Unitarian Universalism in which a greater number of our ministerial students, active ministers and laypeople receive the benefit of a Unitarian Universalist theological education. To further this vision, the ML Board has begun to outline a plan that will allow our School to
provide our education to a greater, more diverse number of learners, both in Chicago and beyond.

Give him credit for seeing an opportunity when one presents its

Frank Schulman's Worship Manual

I should tell you first of all that Frank Schulman was my minister growing up. He followed my father into the pulpit of the First Unitarian Church of Youngstown, Ohio, a pulpit which became suddenly vacant as my father lasted only a year there. After a few years of wandering in the wilderness in the general vicinity of the Warren Ohio fellowship, my family joined the church in Youngstown and stayed there for 20 plus years. In a further odd circumstance, one can say that I now occupy a ministerial position that Frank Schulman occupied before he went to Youngstown.

The UUA has posthumously published a worship manual by Frank, and it may be connected to the extremely generous bequest he made to our movement after his death. So, I turn to the manual and I am completely predisposed to like it. And there is a lot of good stuff there.

But mostly, it is a picture into the mindset of a whole group of ministers who took a sceptical position, and who served as a loyal traditionalist opposition to the emergence of Unitarian Universalism in the post-merger period. Their personal theologies ranged from the broadly theistic to overtly Christian; they were serious about worship and to the extent that Unitarian Universalism has a "high church" tradition, they kept it alive. They were serious about liturgy and they fought for the authority of the minister over the liturgy of the church. They were, and still are, willing to be seen as cantankerous, old curmudgeons clinging to dictatorial power, grouchily shooting down every new innovation in worship, from chalice lighting, to liturgical dance, to easily sung and remembered hymns. I once heard Frank Schulman scathingly deride hymns in which only one word was changed on each verse (usually love, peace, joy and then back to love). He said that they were really just "camp songs." His speech seemed well-rehearsed.

Almost every newer minister that I know who takes worship seriously has been influenced by one or more of these "old boys."

But as I read his book, which is filled with good insights and much practical wisdom, I realize that what I need right now is not there.

I find myself preaching to people that they need to come to church. They don't just need a religious community, but what they need is the regular experience of worship. They need to spend an honest hour in the presence of the ultimate questions and values in their lives. The ultimate question for me, right now, is how does our worship connect with the real spiritual struggle that is going on in the lives of the people who might come to church? How would you explain to an unchurched person why they need to take an hour out of their life to come to church? What are they going to get out of the experience? How will it change their lives, even a little? Not what are the advantages to joining our club? But, how could it help you if you were to come, even if only once, to the service at the First Parish of East Overshoe, this Sunday?

My off-the-cuff opinion is that while mainstream Unitarian Universalism has pursued a non-theological worship style that results in a Sunday morning Celebration of Community that is self-congratulatory and shallow, the traditionalist elements have retreated into a kind of liturgical formalism that aspires to be well-ordered mainline Protestantism out of 1955.

If you can help me figure out how that works, then I will have a basis to say whether it is a good idea to have 2 hymns or 3, or whether the choir should robe or not, or where to stand to make the benediction.

The Gifts and Graces of Ministry

Chutney has been writing on the question of what makes a minister a minister. In his summary post, he lists six points. The first four are general statements of the accepted opinion among free churchers and congregationalists everywhere. But in numbers 5 and 6, Chutney tosses a couple of wild pitches.

5. At times it seems we “believe” that seminary and denominational proceduralism makes someone clergy, that there is an ontological change that takes place upon the approval of academy and guild. This is not just a violation of congregationalism. Behind this notion is a hidden doctrine of “ministerial transubstantiation,” that is, the belief that the Words of Academic and Denominational Institution transform a person into the Body and Blood of Ordained Ministry.

6. Why would anyone hold this view? Because it makes them feel safe. Ministerial transubstantiation allows congregants to skip past the relationality that makes someone their minister to the quick fix of certified clerical authority. This act of spiritual cowardice lays the foundation for congregations to neglect their responsiblity to call and form ministers. Congregations grow frustrated with the unformed clergy they encounter and demand better quality control from their denominations. The denominations, in turn, demand more from the seminaries. The seminaries, in response to this slight, increase their academic requirements, a move further complicated by the academy’s own guild politics. Every move reinforces belief in ministerial transubstantiation. It is a vicious circle.

I know of no one, ministerial or lay, within the free church tradition, who holds that an MDiv and MFC approval creates an "ontological change" in the one called. I know of no one who believes that ordination creates an ontological change in the minister. Such is the stuff of Catholicism. The doctrine of "ministerial transubstantiation" is a strawman.

Ministerial authority in the church is always a controversial topic. The basis for the minister's authority in the congregation is in the office of the called minister in a free church. It is not in the person of the minister.

The role and duties of the office of the minister in a free church has been developed over time and is pragmatic for the most part. Those roles and duties have served the community well, and have changed over time as the needs of the religious community have changed. The renewed interests in lay ministry, shared ministry and community ministry are all part of the present reconsideration of the division of labor between the ordained and the laity.

Institutions in flux generate all sorts of conflicts and competing interests and perspectives. In times like these, there will be ministers who will feel compelled to assert what they perceive as the authority of their office, and there will be congregants who feel that they claim too much authority. They will have to work it out. It helps working it out if the issue is posed as the proper role and duties of the office of the minister. But it the issue is framed as a cheap effort by the minister to claim that he or she is somehow a superior form of being, how can that help?

In his sixth point, Chutney appears to argue that a reliance on "ministerial transsubstantiation" allows the congregation to neglect forming ministers, which is the real cause of the low quality of ministers. Is there an unstated assumption that the cause of ministerial/congregational conflict is the low quality of ministers that are out there? I would argue to the opposite, that the cause of ministerial/congregational conflict is frequently a mutual inability to define the roles, duties and authority of the minister in ways that serve our current needs and is true to the traditions of the free church.

I would even argue, to be more provocative, that the balance of power between minister and congregation is so far in favor of the congregation, so adverse to ministerial authority, that it makes brave, far-sighted, prophetic religious leadership rare, and has resulted in the stagnation of liberal religion, as a theological trend and a social force.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A Livelier and More Exciting Worship Service

Doug Mudar, in his comment on the previous post, says "Actually, I wouldn't mind having a "livelier and more exciting" adult worship service."

A sentiment shared by almost everyone I know, including most ministers. I would even argue that our liturgical history in Unitarian Universalism for the last few decades has been shaped by this underlying dynamic: how to make worship more exciting and livelier? I think that there are two two circumstances that shaped this dynamic:

1. The authority of the minister over worship, a situation which places the minister in the position of having to balance and resolve all of the contradictory and competing worship desires of the congregation. It causes all of the liturgical conflicts within the church appear to conflicts with the minister. Almost everyone who is not a minister thinks that the First Parish Church of East Overshoe would have a much more exciting and livelier worship service were it not for old Rev. Fuddy Duddy. Rev. Fuddy Duddy is being pulled and pushed in many different directions about worship. And Rev. Fuddy Duddy is also accountable to the longer tradition of the church, often humanly represented by people who no longer attend worship every week, but who do not want to be embarrassed by the church in which they plan their funeral.

2. No one is able to make a theologically based argument for the kind of worship that they would like to bring to First Parish, because we don't make those kind of theological arguments with each other. Connected to that, our lack of theological understanding for evangelism flattens those arguments for change. So, the various movements for a more exciting worship style flies under a variety of flags. To be clear, and even though there are good arguments for all of these proposals, I think that the calls "to make worship more intergenerational", "to involve more styles of learning", "to be more culturally diverse in our music", "to have more prophetic preaching", and "to be more grounded in the scripture","more ritualistic" all share a common purpose. Those that advocate them believe that our worship will be livelier, more dramatic, more compelling, more exciting if their proposals are adopted.

I think that worship style will change more quickly in those situations where the lay leadership and the minister get on the same page. Which means that the lay leaders need to understand the worship tradition of the congregation as a valuable asset in defining the specific theological identity and character of the church. The work we are trying to do is to strenghten and renovate this most basic asset. It means coming down off the position that the worship tradition is the barrier to change. Overthrowing the worship tradition of the church results in a church which is not able to present itself with any clarity in the community. If First Parish was all bible readings and Episcopal prayers last year, and this year is all Joys and Concerns and Let it Be A Dance, then why should anyone commit to it, for next year who knows what it will be? It might be naked dancing in the moonlight, or it might be speaking in tongues and handling snakes. If it is just what the people who come to it right now want it to be, then we better guard the doors very carefully.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Ministry to Children in a Worship Centered Church

Thanks to everyone who has contributed in some way to this discussion about worship in liberal religion.

If we think of our common religious lives as being grounded, first and foremost, in the experience of worshipping together, how does that change how we think about ministry to children and youth? You can tell that I have a definite opinion by the fact that I even pose the question as "ministry to children and youth" and not as "religious education."

I don't like imaging the process of religious growth as "education". I don't like it as a way to think about it for children, and expanding it to Lifespan Religious Education only makes me more uncomfortable, and not less. O God, a school from which I can never, ever, graduate !

While I think that passing along some information is a necessary part of working with children and youth, it is hardly the most important part.

We need to give our children opportunities to worship.

I don't mean making them stay longer in the adult worship service of the church -- or only having intergenerational worship.

What would a great worship service for children look like, sound like, feel like? What would a service be like if its goals were to provide a moment of reflection for kids, an experience of beauty, an inspiring message about real issues in their lives, a chance to experience the feeling of community solidarity, a challenge to make a decision to be a better person in the week to come?

In other words, what if we had the same goals for children that we have for adults, but made a real commitment to work at their developmental level?

In short, I think that the educational model: classes, teachers, curriculums, lesson plans is way overdone in our ministry to children. In fact, I am not sure that most UU kids need more information, at all.

I see in the church I serve that at a certain size the problems of classroom control and keeping order eat up a sizable portion of the volunteer energy that goes into the RE program.

Because the classroom experience is so small, and the adult volunteers are spread so thin across the group, kids are exposed to talking, thinking, reading, and crafts activities. Music and dance and dramatics are much more rare experiences.

Childrens worship is often a simplified version of the adult worship, as opposed to livelier and more exciting experience of worship.

Children's social needs don't seem to be met well. Among the most commonly cited reason for why kids don't want to participate in our Sunday School is that they have not made friends. (Just like the adults.)

There is not enough choice. Adults in the church get to choose what activity they will participate in: sing in the choir, work on a committee, do a project, teach Sunday School, or just sit in worship. If you are in fifth grade, you know what you will be doing at church, and who you will be doing it with. Or you go to the adult service. Or you stay home.

What I would like to see: that kids have an opportunity to experience a well-done, professionally led, carefully considered worship service, crafted specifically for them, at least once a month. Exciting music, a chance to sing loudly and move their bodies to a song that makes sense to them. A well-chosen story told well, and an straight forward message that explores the meaning of the story and helps them apply it to their lives. Separate from the regular service and in their own worship space.

I would like to see a church that uses the small group ministry models with children to build their social connections and networks and helps them have friends at church, that takes their social needs seriously.

I would like to see a church that offers lots of religious education curricula to people of all ages who want to do it, for six weeks, or 9 weeks or a for a whole year. Wouldn't you love to see a group of UU adults and kids talking about Jesus together in a serious way?

What do you think is most important for our ministry children and youth?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Mission and Worship

We have been discussing the relationship between worship and mission, especially in UU churches.

My cynical perception for years has been that the default theory of UUism is that what matters most is social justice mission work of the church. (Deeds not creeds). The UU congregation is a community defined by an unexamined "like-minded-ness." The community tries to recruit more people to join it, and the worship service is a show that the community puts on to attract new people. Unfortunately, most people don't particularly like the show. And those that do, a bunch like the show so much that they don't want to do anything but be consumers of it. Some people become invested in the community that they really take on the tasks of institutional maintenance. And finally, there is a small group, the cream of the crop, that tries to be disciples of the underlying values and do the mission work out in the community. These are the blessed ones and they are truly wonderful when they are not consumed with resentment at all the slackers, consumers and spiritual dilettantes who make up the rest of the congregation.

I suppose that I started my ministry with this point of view. But after a few years of actual parish ministry, I observed that this understanding didn't really match the work of the church. It places the community activist at the top of the pyramid, but community activism is often particular to specific lifestages: young adults, people without children, the healthy and active seniors who have that as an experience, the mid-lifers whose jobs allow it. Families with younger children, the overworked middlers in the private sector, people with health issues, the elders who are slowing down in activity levels, as well as the shy, the dreamy, the reclusive and the anxious are just never going to be the kinds of community activists that we imply are the peak of the process of spiritual evolution.

A few years back, I adopted for myself, and advocated in my way, for a worship-centered theory of church/congregational life. Congregational worship is our spiritual practice. Worship creates the community as opposed to the idea that the community puts on worship as its project. The most important service to the larger community is that we give it an opportunity to worship, and in a rapidly de-churching, yet spiritually hungering, culture offering a worship opportunity with a low threshold seems worthwhile. I think that a church can also offer a lot of opportunities for people to carry their ultimate values into their lives: people want to be better parents, better members of their families, better witnesses for their values in the community, better practitioners of the various spiritual disciplines, better citizens. Any given church is going to do some of these better than others given its gifts and resources and experience. Better that a church do one or two very well than all of them poorly.

I think, of course, that I am terribly daring in a conservative kind of way to make a pitch for a worship centered view of the church amongst all the UU's who seemed to think that social justice is the true purpose of the church. (Everybody who knows me has figured out that I would rather be famously wrong than conventional in obscurity.)

But now, the zeitgeist is shifting, as evidenced by Bill Sinkford talking about the centrality of worship in congregational life in the pages of the UU World (which now being online and updatable 24/7 could change its name to the UU Daily World, were it not for some uncomfortable historical associations that might be drawn.) But the underlying theory seems to be that worship is a refuge from the cold cruel world, a place where we lick our wounds and prepare again for battle during the week.

What I think is needed is to clarify what goes on in worship relative to the rest of the week, and to resist the temptation to reduce it to comfort and refuge. The Methodists with whom I went to seminary used to talk about "preaching for a decision" -- preaching to encourage the conversion process, the commitment to Christ. All this talk whistled through my Teflon coated ears at that point, but the phrase still sticks in my mind. Instead of using the language of refuge and comfort, we might want to use the language of decision and commitment. Every week, we are preaching toward a decision, that individuals will commit themselves, maybe for the first time, and maybe for the 100th time, to live out their sense of the most ultimate next week. JLA talks about worship as being where "the intimate and the ultimate meet." It takes a decision for that to happen. It's much broader than deciding to be a community activist and to go to another set of meetings over the week, or to quit complaining and start screaming this week; it might mean just sending a note to your estranged relatives.

Now, I admit that I am talking here as a preacher in an established church, and not as a church planter. It may be the a new plant might not be worship centered, but pulling people together about some other activity. I don't presume to judge that.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Why What Happens In Worship Matters

In the previous post, I noted that thinking about the worship experience as preparing us "to go out in the world and face another week" suggests that worship is a refuge from the world where we rest and recharge, but where nothing actually happens.

The division between the world out there where things really happen and the world of worship where we think about, reflect on, pray about, preach about the real world is so built into liberal religion as to be a part of the air we breathe.

Our colleague, the Rev. M. Jean Heriot has a wonderful book, "Blessed Assurance" which is her study of an evangelical Southern Baptist community in the South, with whom she spent many months.

She argues that for those folks, what happened in church was not a world apart from the real world, but, in some ways, perhaps the realest and most important part of life. After all, the individual soul was brought into a contemplation of ultimate reality and asked to make a decision about the direction of his or her life. What could be more important than that?

What if liberal religion took more seriously the power of the worship experience to pose real questions about life to the worshippers and to ask them to make decisions and commitments about how they were going to live?

What if we rephrased Bill Sinkford's summation of worship. Instead of saying that worship is "calling us to be our best selves as we go back into the world to face another week", we say that "worship is where we face the choices and make the decisions about how we are going to live in the week to come." ?

Yes, there is a nurturance and comfort and consolation in worship. But there is also confronting, choosing, deciding and committing.

I am afraid that we are so trapped in our desire to not guilt-trip people about coming to church on Sunday, and so averse to any sacramental sense of worship, that we act like it nothing happens on Sunday morning at church anyway.

A growing liturgical tradition

UUA President William Sinkford addresses the question of worship here in a recent entry to the UU world online. He points out several elements of the worship that seem to becoming more common in UU worship. He probably knows because I doubt that there is anyone who attends more UU worship services in different settings every year than him. Wouldn't it be great to get his absolutely candid evaluation of every UU service he attends all year long, with pictures, quotes and audio recordings? I mean with all the loving and generous brutality of Peacebang discussing inappropriate footware. I earnestly suggest that President Sinkford blog his worship experiences of his final year in office; it would be as great a gift as any inspirational words he might compose for those occasions. But I digress.....

Rev. Sinkford sees as our hopeful signs: more singing, more chalice lightings, and
Sermons about real-life issues are becoming more common, appealing not just to our minds but also calling us to be our best selves as we go back out into the world and face another week. People are coming to church to be part of a community that affirms their humanity and value, to get their spirits nurtured;

I have to admit that not so long ago, I would have greeted these words with some cynicism. After all, the First Church I Serve (Second Parish) offers up a chunkier liturgical broth every week: candlelightings, covenants, doxologies, three prayers, readings both scriptural and contemporary etc. etc. (Did you hear about the church, let's call it the Church of What's Happening Now that is so current that they replaced their old double-barreled reading (the Ancient Reading and the Modern Reading) with a Trifecta: The Pre-Modern, The Modern and the Post-Modern Readings) But I digress.....

Be that as it may, I have come to accept the fact that we are where we are. Churches and congregations are building and developing their worship traditions as they go along. Ministers are responding to the expressed needs of their congregants in languages and ritual forms that meet them where they are.

What are the needs being expressed in the worship developments that Rev. Sinkford sees:

I think that the flaming chalice is mostly about identification. Yes, the chalice lighting does serve as a moment of group concentration that focuses the attention of the group. (We get the same effect from a candle lighting, which is actually harder to do in our circumstances, so everyone holds their breath through the little ritual/ordeal.) But the Chalice is really about us being "US".

More singing is more singing -- more sense of community, more active participation.

I am struck by the "called to be our best selves as we go out into the world and face another week." There is a whole world view expressed in that phrase and a whole lot of questions hiding in it: why are we not our best selves?, is the world harder to face for us than for others?, why do we accept the notion that the world is "out there" and what we are doing in worship is a refuge from it? Is that an implicit admission that nothing really happens in worship?

When I say that we are a Lively Tradition, I mean that there is something alive going on, and we should pay attention.