Monday, July 30, 2007

The Paul Sermon: Why We Do What We Do and Why We Do It The Way We Do

Click below for the longer text from which my sermon "The Revolutionary Paul for the 21st Century" was taken and delivered at All Souls Church, Tulsa, Sunday, July 29. It is about the New Paul Perspective, but ultimately about why we plant new missions/churches, and why we do them or need to do them the way we do now differently than we've done before. I think All Souls may be posting a podcast of the sermon sometime soon and I will post a link to it here. The readings and some more updates to the sermon from what was actually delivered will be posted later so check back. The readings came from Garry Wills book "What Paul Meant," from Brandon Scott's book "Re-imagine the World" in which he writes about the new Paul translations particularly in Stanley Stowers ReReading Romans, that stresses "Jesus' faithfulness" and following its spirit instead of "belief in Jesus" as an object, and from Shane Claiborne's wonderful new book "The Irresistible Revolution: the life of an ordinary radical" (more on that soon too on the blog).

For those of you joining this blog who found out about it at either SWUUSI workshop on Paul or at the All Souls worship service, welcome. The longer bibliography is available two posts below on Apostle Paul and Missional/Church Planting. But my quickie recommendations for finding or ordering a book or two on the New Paul Perspective---"Reinventing Paul" by John Gager, or Wills "What Paul Meant" or go to John Dominic Crossan's "In Search of Paul" or his sections on Jesus and Paul in his latest book "God and Empire." These are some of the most accessible for general readership, or go to the section on Paul in Marcus Borg's Rereading the Bible Again for the First Time, or even the slender section on Paul in John Buehrens Understanding the Bible For Liberals. See the other post below the workshop outline for the full list.

For links to more on The New (original) Paul Perspective, go to: Reading Romans Anew, Sojourners Magazine/March-April 1999 and Paula Fredriksen on Paul,
an older essay by Fredriksen but still good overview
and Reinventing Paul and What Is the New Perspective on Paul?

Now here is the text from which the sermon was taken:

This past week at Lake Murray State Park I taught a course on The New Perspective on Paul during the annual Southwest Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute, or church camp. We were crowded into one of the large cabins. The conversation covered the words and the mission and the world of the man known as the Apostle Paul, and after four days there was so much left to dig into, old images to shake off, new understandings to just begin to glimpse. After whole semesters of study, whole books written, it is the same. And yet, here I stand, with only a fraction of that time, and the title staring back at me: The Revolutionary Paul for the 21st Century.

I take to heart then, and hope you will too, that there is no truer statement than when Paul says, in his great hymn of love’s force found in First Corinthians (from which our hymn sung this morning was made), that “we know in part, we prophesy in part.” Paul wrote this about his own limitations, about all of our inherent limitations, especially when it comes to the mysteries of the Infinite. But perhaps there is no one this applies to more as a subject than Paul himself.

And still Paul beckons. Before the turn of the year 2000, in the millennium fever he would have known so well, news magazines polled historians about the most influential people of the past 2000 years. Paul was near or at the top of the lists. Along with the scholars of the New Paul Perspective, I think he could also claim to be the most misinterpreted of all time.

In hindsight, a part of me wishes now I had chosen to preach this Sunday on the timely topic of The Gospel of Harry Potter instead of The Gospel of Paul. Especially since this past week I also finished the last Harry Potter book. I won’t give anything away, but I will point out that even J.K. Rowling was influenced by Paul and, without attributing it to him, in this final book she uses a fairly famous verse by Paul—it comes also from First Corinthians but the 15th chapter 26th verse.

But, beyond Harry Potter, why else is Paul important?

In part it is a matter of faith, I know, but in part it is a matter of history and culture. Because his writings are the earliest direct words we have about Jesus. And because Paul’s life and work with the early communities of Jesus followers, while not being the only model at the time, became such an inspirational foundation that they helped a “tiny, marginalized Jewish sect become within 300 years time the dominant religious force in the Roman Empire.” (See Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity which has a subtitle pretty close to that statement)

Let’s begin with a bit of background or refresher:
Let’s say Jesus was active in his rural area around the Sea of Galillee in the mid to late 20s of the first century, is crucified by the Romans around the year 30; small communities of his followers are springing up here and there in the Mediterranean area afterwards, maybe only 1000 total followers though by the year 40, less than the membership of All Souls.

Paul, a Jew from the city of Tarsus in what is now Turkey has become one of them say around the year 35. He then eventually helps to form new communities and he writes back and forth with them. The seven authentic letters (not 14 often attributed to him in the New Testament and not the Acts of the Apostles) date during the years say 50 to 57. Paul dies, perhaps is killed by the Empire, sometime say between the year 62 and 66. There are perhaps in all the Empire only 2000 followers of Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, at the time of Paul’s death.

Between 66 and the year 70 is the great Roman-Jewish War that levels Jerusalem and destroys the Second Temple and the Temple-centered focus and practices and identity of Judaism that has been vital even for the Jesus communities. Only after that do you have written the gospels that tell their stories of Jesus. One of them, written around the year 90, the Gospel of Luke, is actually a two-parter. Its second volume is called the Acts of the Apostles, and it is here that Paul, himself, as a historical character shows up in someone else’s, Luke’s, story, 30 years after his own death and 60 years after the events it seeks to use in telling its story of Paul.

The problem is that ever since the invention of the Printing Press we tend to treat a collection of books, composed at varying times by varying peoples, as a single book, with a single plot, meant to be read front to back, Genesis to Revelations. When this happens, Paul’s authentic letters, and authentic perspectives, the earliest about him and about Jesus, come in the book after the gospels and after the Acts of the Apostles have already shaped our images and impressions. And then throw in the tradition stories about him written hundreds of years later, picked up by Hollywood versions, and “who Paul was and what Paul meant” gets seriously twisted around. And they would have been hard enough to begin with since Paul is not intent on writing a systematic theology for the ages but is writing particularly to specific communities in specific contexts and about specific issues.

Getting straight on the chronology and placing more importance on what Paul wrote than on what was written about him is step one in approaching the New Perspective on Paul, which scholars point out, is not new but actually the oldest, the first, perspective.

This task of biblical scholarship is part of the liberal religious tradition of which Unitarian Universalism is a part, and once, when it came to the Bible and scholarship, it was a leading partner. So it has been too with studies of Paul. I stand in a long line of Unitarian and Universalists who have been beckoned by Paul. Let’s take a quick sidestep to acknowledge just a few of them:

Origen, that early third century teacher, church leader, promoter of universal salvation, and therefore heretic, based his beliefs on Paul. So centuries later did the Universalist Church of America, especially when Paul wrote that “as in Adam all died, so in Christ all shall be made alive.”
On the Unitarian side, in 1821, the Rev. William Ellery Channing preached his famous Baltimore Sermon called Unitarian Christianity crystallizing a movement that in 1825 became the American Unitarian Association. His sermon was based on a text from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians: “Test all things. Hold fast to that which is good.”
Later another famous sermon based on a Paul text was delivered at a pivotal national Unitarian assembly in 1870, by the Rev. William Greenleaf Eliot of St. Louis. Eliot’s sermon, called Christ and Liberty, grew from the Second Letter to the Corinthians where Paul says “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty.” Freedom and God, to Unitarians, always go together. Where there is one, there will be the other.
Many a Unitarian sermon has also been based on Paul’s admonition in Romans that “we be transformed by the renewal of our minds.” If we are accused of being too much in our heads, as we rightly often are, just say we have Paul to blame—that should confound our critics.

And I would be very amiss here in this church not to mention the Unitarian minister Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones of the Mid-West and Chicago area in the 1800s who, as one of your own members and one of his descendants wrote about him, was known as “the St. Paul of Unitarianism” for his liberal evangelical zeal in church starting.

In the post-World War Two era, after the Holocaust, when Christian roots of anti-semitism were being explored, comes Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies of Washington, D.C. who wrote a popular and fairly radical for its times book about St. Paul called “The First Christian.” Radical because if Paul were the first Christian that meant Jesus wasn’t, and the full Jewishness of Jesus was news at the time. By “first Christian” Davies really meant founder of Christian religion as it became since there were obviously earlier followers of Jesus than Paul. This sentiment, part of the old perspective, shaped much of the then Unitarian approach to Paul and Christianity. Because, as we will see, we liberals had issues with Paul we therefore had issues with Christianity and tended to leave both behind.

By the mid-1980s, however, as the New Perspective was still in its embryonic stage, things were beginning to change. And the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship published an essay by a United Church of Christ seminary professor which was called “Paul for Unitarian Universalists” stressing Paul’s monotheism and faith in universal salvation. And this year, the annual Revival sponsored by the UUCF to be held this November at Cleveland’s West Shore UU Church will feature three lectures on Paul by biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan.

Paul is quite a holistic spiritual thinker whose messages echo in much of contemporary religion. For a covenantal faith tradition such as ours, Paul is a good guide. He says no part of our selves, or our societies, can stand alone or be given priority. We need one another, especially those parts that are the most neglected, oppressed. That we each have special gifts to be nurtured and differences respected even as we make up one body, one people. What’s more free church than that? Even more, to times then and now when people were kept apart by racial and ethnic and gender and class divides, Paul not only preached that one’s ultimate identity was neither slave nor free, male nor female, Greek nor Jew, Roman nor barbarian, but he had the commitment to try the messy job of creating human communities of faith in that Truth.

So, why in the world, in Garry Wills words, does such a one with such Good News to share, have such a bad rap, be seen as the Bad News Man, especially among those liberal thinkers who should most be in his camp, and he in theirs? Why is it, for liberals: Jesus Good, Paul Bad? Because we bought into the Old Perspective of Paul, the one shaped by Augustine and Martin Luther and the Empire ways of Christendom (blessed be much of what they wrought, by the way, except for when it comes to basing doctrine on Paul.) What they found good in Paul we found bad and so we looked no further. We left the field. If we used Paul at all, and even there perhaps grudgingly, it was to use his love song for wedding ceremonies---faith hope and love these three, but the greatest of these is love. And even there, I swear, I bet some listeners today in our unchurched culture will think we are quoting not Paul of Tarsus but Paul of McCartney.

But now the new/original perspective on Paul, divergent and still forming as it is, is becoming Bad news for the fundamentalist, the doctrinaire, the biblical literalist and traditionalist who is finding out what true literalism and tradition means. For the new perspective is going deeper than ever in order to reclaim and uncover the authentic Paul who is still one of the most revolutionary religious figures of all time.
Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan actually shows us this kind of uncovering on the cover of his recent book “In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom.” There he depicts a fresco from the sixth century in Turkey. It shows the Apostle Paul and a mirror image of a woman apostle named Thecla; they have equal stature and standing and poses. Originally they would have been seen as equals. However, in later centuries someone has vandalized the eyes and upraised hand of Thecla in an attempt to make her seem less important. That symbolically is what the Old Perspective on Paul did too.

Here is the change, here an all too brief and incomplete, partial summary highlight of the new perspective. Still debated and resisted, to be sure, but growing in scholarly consensus. And I don’t have to agree with Paul in all aspects, from my perspective 2000 years later, to appreciate the essence of Paul’s perspective.
Paul was not the first Christian, let alone did he found a new religion. He did not convert from one religion to another. There wasn’t anything remotely like what is thought of as Christianity today to which Paul could have converted. He was born, lived, died a Jew, and probably was killed because of it. His focus was always on the actions of the God of Israel. He came to a new and powerful understanding that in Jesus and in rewarding Jesus’ faithful life by raising him from the dead, God had started what Crossan calls God’s “great clean-up” of the evils of the age. Soon, for Paul, the full Messianic age of justice and liberation would take place. Because of that, we must act differently in the here and now. Many Jews then and now, of course, didn’t agree with Paul and other Jews about what should constitute the mainstream of Judaism. But there were many streams of it in Paul’s time; his was on the margin, but connected. This example of a stance in the margins has become even more an example for our own times. As a Christian in UUism I know it well (too Christian or not Christian enough, too UU or not UU enough, depending on whom I am with), but I am not alone; progressive or liberal faith is often depicted as a faith of the third way, mediating between the worlds of religious insights and the worlds of secular insights, all for the good of the one world in which all dwell.

Paul is foremost the Apostle to the Gentiles, all those non-Jews of the Roman Empire. Paul says salvation has already come to the Jews, through the gift of the covenant and Torah; by “Christing” Jesus, God does not take that away. God extends the gift to others. Instead, through following Jesus’ faithfulness, Gentiles become a part of God’s covenant people. Among Paul’s problem with his fellow Jews, including those who were also followers of Jesus as the Messiah, is that Paul sought full fellowship in the covenant for the Gentiles, and without their having to keep kosher and for the males to be circumcised. In that debate, and over the whole Messiah issue, harsh things were said; we have Paul’s but not surely much of what was said against and about him. But the thing to remember is that it was a family quarrel. Only years later, when the church and synagogue were more officially separated, and when letters were written by others attributed to Paul, did the family quarrel become a kind of conflict between groups.

Paul is not an early kind of tele-evangelist concerned with individual souls. He is always focused on the cosmic and on whole communities and social justice and God’s ridding the earth of the oppressive powers and principalities, the Caesers. When he talks about the new age coming, it is nothing like the Left Behind Rapture Myth where what you merely profess to believe determines whether or not you are spirited out of your body and off to some other-world. For Paul, the Messiah’s return will usher in a new world of peace and justice here for all, and those who have died already will be a part of a general spiritual bodily raising up to life again, as God had shown in the example of Jesus. Paul is opposed to the Platonic worldview of abstract disembodied perfection and the immortality of the soul in a nether region.

Paul is a counter-cultural figure indeed. For what could be in the world’s eyes, then and unfortunately now, less a symbol and source of the divine, the Good, than a poor rural Jewish radical criminal executed by the State, hung on the cross with the intent to shame him and his followers and to expose the weakness and failure and helplessness and the end to all which that life pointed. But Paul says what the world finds foolish, God finds wise; what the world finds wise, God finds foolish. It is in our very helplessness and isolation that the God of transformation is present. In that way, the Left Behind folks with their emphasis on violence and victory, are more followers of Ceaser than of the Christ. In this way Paul has also taken the lessons of Jesus’ parables about a God similarly turned upside down and inside out, and Paul, from his experience, has made a parable for others out of what God has done with Jesus.

So Paul is not the perverter of Jesus’ message, but its promoter to others in different settings who might not ever have encountered it. Contrary to what is depicted in later English translations, Paul is not substituting Jesus’ focus on right living for correct belief in Jesus as an object of faith. And he is not making a duality out of faith and works. The new and improved and more independent translations and readings of Paul paint a different picture. For him what’s important is how the faithfulness of Jesus in living a divine mission in alignment with God’s liberating mission, even in the face of Empire power and the cross, was rewarded by God. And so all who live likewise with similar trusting will be rewarded. Do you get how radical and foundation-shaking the new Paul Perspective is, especially for faiths, personal or communal, built on the shaky sands of salvation by creedalism alone?.

But what of Paul and women, Paul and homosexuality, Paul and slavery? Paul was influenced by two things: one was certainly his immediate time and context and cultural understandings and the controversies then; he was, surprise, a finite human being; the other was his conviction that all of that was about to be changed and righted by God very soon and so don’t get diverted by the deeper mission of letting people see how those in Christ, in the new reality, lived and cared for one another as God did. I might wish he had written manifestos against the status quo, but he thought it would soon be a moot issue. In Paul’s authentic letters we see him fully working with many women as leaders, having no problem with them speaking as long as they wore headcovers as was the custom, saying that wives should be subject to husbands but also that husbands should be subject to wives. The evidence is so overwhelming that scholars believe the one place in the authentic letters where Paul says women in the assemblies should be silent is likely a scribal insertion from the later times to tame Paul’s radical message. Slavery is a similar issue. Paul assumes it as a given in the outside world but says that in the communities it doesn’t exist because it doesn’t exist for God, and says that in the outside world followers should treat slaves with respect. And Paul doesn’t know something called homosexuality, as a human condition, as we know it today. For him it is a practice associated with the power imbalances of the dominant Gentile culture full of sexual violence and of extreme urges that reflected an idolatry of passions toward the self and away from God. Just as for Paul Gentiles didn’t have to take on certain ethnic practices of Jews to be a part of the covenant with the God of Israel, he did want them to give up certain practices reflective of their own culture.

Paul is not the inventor of the theology of depravity and original sin and the vicarious atonement of Jesus’s death on the cross to take away those sins for all who believe in Jesus as part of the Trinity of God Himself. It took us centuries of fallibility and the Church becoming one and the same with the Empire and State for that to take hold. That and misunderstanding Paul. For one, remember that Paul doesn’t have individuals in mind. He had more an approach of inevitable sin, that all the world is out of alignment, and that God had begun with Jesus to bring it into alignment, to justify it, the way lines of type are said to be justified. Paul is not Mel Gibson either. Jesus’ death on the cross is never seen by Paul as a final or ultimate act, but always as act two with the third act being the raising up to life again by God. Crossan is right when he talks about how Paul sees Jesus’ life and his death, stemming from that life, as like that of a firefighter who ends up giving up his life, sacrificing it, making it sacred, to save another because that is his mission, how we treat all life as sacred. It isn’t the horribleness of the death in a fire that makes it a special sacrifice, either, and we wouldn’t say the firefighter is taking the place of someone else who has been destined otherwise to die in the fire. Later theology, not Paul, makes that abusive theological move. No, the death happened because of the way the firefighter chose to live his life, to what he was ultimately faithful, and while all life is sacred, in staying ultimately faithful to his life and mission, the firefighter gained a particular kind of sacredness. When Paul says Jesus died “for us” he meant not “in place of” but “on behalf of.” And specifically on behalf of the Gentiles, who through this action and the coming new age would be a part of the transformed world. In trying to make sense of what didn’t make sense--a crucified Messiah--Paul comes to understand that by God joining with us in our suffering at our most terrible moments the Messiah’s power would actually grow and extend to all. For Paul, because God through the life, death, and raising of Jesus participated in humanity, Gentiles would be able to participate in everlasting relationship with God, just as through the Creation and the Torah Jews participated in God’s everlasting relationship.

So that is Paul then. What does that have to do with the 21st century?
Paul and his communities existed before Christendom, and now we and ours exist after Christendom. We have pluralistic unchurched culture not seen since the crossroads of the Middle East in the first century, roads Paul journeyed alongside. Religions compete for attention and commitment in the world today in ways not experienced until you go back to the days before the Emperor Constantine, to the days of Paul. Then Paul sought to find and serve a counter-cultural God of liberation in the omnipresent and oppressive Roman Empire, and to build communities based on values opposite of its dominant culture. Today we struggle to shape spiritual faith and communities in the midst of and often against the reach of the dehumanizing aspects of what is becoming known as the American Empire, especially since the fall of communism left it as the single largest influence in ways not known since the Romans. Against the American Empire super-sized values of over-consumption, over-indulgence, over-control, fear, apathy, despair, addictions of all kinds, and immersion in Spectacle, Fantasy, and Distraction, how do people of faith respond?
Through the new perspectives on Jesus and now on Paul, as Brandon Scott wrote, we can see how it has worked before, admittedly as long as you aren’t short-sighted and in need of quick fixes, how there is power in reimaging our world and our lives, changing our default modes of what is ultimately of value and worth. Paul’s perspective particularly calls us in this century to change our default mode of what it means to be a transformed upside down and inside out church in order to be able to be effective in continuing transformation of our new era and helping people initiate such transformation in their lives and their families and their workplaces and neighborhoods.
All across this world the word church is taking on an ancient-future meaning, harkening back to the days of Paul when it meant small groups of radically inclusive people practicing radical acts of hospitality within and particularly outside of their group, living on the margins, often without buildings, bylaws, budgets, signs, names, paid leaders, committees, members, Sunday morning one-hour gatherings and sermons and spectator-oriented worship, but instead bound together by relationship and mission, not trying to attract people with the right message to come inside something known as the church but interact with them by incarnating ourselves in various ways to live with them, serve them. And the spirit of Paul, known or unknown, is continuing the revolution, picking up after a few millennium, being raised to life again.
I try to keep up with much of this emergent organic simple revolutionary church on my blog called Planting God Communities. And in some ways this whole sermon has been about what motivates me theologically as a church planter. If you want to see an attempt at putting Paul at work in the 21st century, I invite you to come down to the northern end of Peoria, where in new and larger space given over to others, those few of us known as part of The Living Room Church are creating our first site, first of many we hope, of a liberal expression of organic Paul-inspired church through the new community space called “A Third Place” and through our partnerships and simple acts of ordinary revolution designed to show that hope and love and faithfulness are still possible, still spreading, especially as Paul discovered in surprising places and peoples.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Organic Church Sermon

On July 15 I returned to the church I "started" in 1991, to talk about the church I am "planting" these days, and others of its species. Here is the sermon text from which my actual and more dialogue-oriented sermon came from. One of the things I wish I had stressed more is how even existing churches can become more organic by (of course church planting; never too late; reconceiving of their mission not being accomplished until they reproduce, but also...) beginning organic incarnational missions where they are and turning them loose to grow and multiply. I tend toward the revolutionary approach but even if a church continues its status quo approach it can start being intentional about sending groups of three to five people on various kinds of missional "scavenger and salvage" hunts; a kind of breeding of its own insurgency; and see where the energy goes from there. If nothing else it might prompt some "necessary splitting" and conflict, out of which health may grow. This particular church has done some organic things perhaps unintentional; one of which was occasioned during a time of anxiety by the minister leading the way on going from full time to three-fourths time (heresy, right?); but such things help to create stress pressure points and, what might happen, is those people who only want to be associated with a church that "has" a full-time "pastor" because of the kind of image that sends will eventually leave or be marginalized or have transformations themselves. Ministry might actually increase when the minister's "hours" are reduced.

I am not a gardener but as some of you know I have been married to one for almost 33 years. So there has been a lot of cross-pollination, so to speak, between our two worlds of dirt and divinity. It was only natural I suppose that I should be drawn to the organic church movement—also known in some ways as the emergent or post-modern or quantum or natural or simple or liquid or multiple or micro-church movement. Especially as I have been involved with church planting—as the term church planting itself shows, different say from the more mechanistic term church starting, the way we talk about church is telling.

In his book, “Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens” Neil Cole of Church Multiplication Association reprints a story about the importance of these perspective changes. It is a very Toad and Frog like story (I had previously in the worship told the Toad and Frog story "A garden" which Cole also quotes in his book), but it is the story of two men, let’s call them Ben and Jerry, who saw an advertisement placed by local farmers who were tired of having their livestock eaten by a pack of wolves. The ad offered $500 per wolf, taken dead or alive. The two entrepeneurs set off with their camping supplies and rifles. After a couple of days of fruitless hunting, the two collapsed in fatigue by a warm campfire they had built. Hearing a noise, Ben awakes, only to notice the glow of fire reflecting off the eyes and teeth of a pack of hungry wolves surrounding their little camp. He slowly, yet urgently, reaches over to nudge his partner awake. In a hushed and frantic voice, he whispers, “Jerry! Jerry! Wake up! We’re rich!”

How we see things, what our default modes are, determine so much. Our cultural experiences shape our worldviews and they in turn shape us. That culture has been drastically changed is at the root of the organic church movement. Author Leonard Sweet divides us up generally into those who are immigrants to this new culture in which we live (those born before 1963 for sure, and in some ways those born even before 1975) and those of the more recent generations who are natives to this new culture.
Show of hands.
I am going to shift metaphors for a bit. Think of church as a telephone. Now compare it to what can already quaintly be called a “cell phone.”

We often are doing church as 1950s era telephones and trying to be significant force in people’s lives who are shaped by the expectations of the 2007 IPhone. Even doing church as we did it in 1990s has problems connecting now. Even using technology as a metaphor is problematic for categorizing organic churches.

We in UU churches are not alone. The organic church movement I will describe in a moment has sprung up in response to this challenge. It particularly grows out of the experience worldwide of unchurched and de-churched younger people, the children who don’t find authentic community and life transformation in the megachurches of their boomer parents. It is not that it will necessarily replace megachurches either; most see a time in this century when there will not be any one model of church that is prevalent, as there has been, but only that the organic models will be growing in percentage as the kind of communities of faith people seek.

The organic church revolution goes to the very root or heart of what people have as their default mode associations when they hear the word church. Just about every characteristic of that word church is being turned upside down and inside out.

In the book “Emerging Churches” these churches are identified with these characteristics: 1.) they identify with the life of Jesus (not dogma or creed or denomination or tradition); 2.) they transform the secular realm, and 3.) they live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they 4.) welcome the stranger, 5.) serve with generosity, 6.) participate as producers, 7.) create as created beings, 8.) lead as a body, and 9) take part in spiritual activities. (Gibbs, Bolger, p. 45)... As one leader says, “I read the gospels over and over. Nothing I was doing on Sunday was what I thought Jesus would be doing if he were here. (Joe Boyd, Apex, Las Vegas, p. 47). Another says, “We don’t believe in any religion anymore—including Christianity—but we do believe in following Jesus. We no longer need religion with its special buildings, dogmas, programs, clergy, or any other human inventions that displace genuine spirituality. Why do we need a name and address to be church? We’ve come out of religion and back to God.” (Jonathan Campbell, Seattle, p. 47)Let’s look more closely at some of these changes, and I will do so also from what we have undergone in a few years in our part of the Tulsa area.

The name---no denomination even if it is part of one; you know you are in the presence of organic churches often when you hear names like Solomon’s Porch, The Ooze, Tribal Generation, Axxess, Quest, Matthew’s House, The Rock, Levi’s Table, Headspace, Eternity, The Bridge, Landing Place, Ikon, ReImagine, Warehouse, smallboatbigocean, and one of my favorites, located in Denver, is Scum of the Earth, which Jesus would have understood. (I talk about the changes in ours from Epiphany to The Living Room but now mostly just “the church” meeting in the community center we started called “a third place." and also how we have grown fond of one suggestion of calling our group at the first site "The Salvage" since we are surrounded by them here. ) AND anyway, no real place to put or use name; you can’t drive by our very busy highly visible location on north Peoria Ave. and see a sign that says Church. Instead of trying to attract people with a message to a message; organic church is incarnational, people being the church in different ways and relating to people; more mission and no signs. Break our addiction to PR; one of our heresies is that we don’t try to attract people to be “visitors” at worship, and the kind of co-dependent treadmill of “do they like us when they don’t even know us” but to be partners with us in our actions in the community; if they don’t have a church already and are interested in going deeper with us, that’s fine; if not, good too as long as we are doing God’s work in the world.

The building—not just one but several places of varying types, usually rented, usually looks like so-called secular space, might even be in or be started as a commercial establishment like a coffeehouse or art gallery; might be a house; and more often than not might not be a building, but meet outside in variety of spaces, apartment complex clubhouses, restaurants, movie theatres, parks, lakes. [story of young man with ADD forms group at lake]
We recently more than doubled our space but have given it over to the community and we are guests in our own space. Turning inside out. Instead of getting people to come into our building past all the religious symbols and words and then go back out to do things for the community; we begin with community interaction.

The time of gathering---not just one hour on Sunday morning, but when people can get together, even reaching out to those unable to be in Sun. morning; maybe when people’s shifts end at 3 a.m. Ours is Sunday afternoon because of less stress on families with children.

What you do together---more mission to others as focus, service and social justice oriented; worship isn’t the main thing but the main thing is helping to transform the community and form relationships with people to help transform people’s lives, and whatever worship there is, signing and praying and sharing and study, is important because of how it helps keep up your mission with others who may never be a part of your group.

The numbers---intentionally kept to size in any one site where it is easier to form relationships and communal bonds—12 to 20 maybe 40 at most, but since the goal is to reproduce, to multiply, then you might have that number at different sites and they may gather together for celebration only. Easier to be more flexible, to meet more often, when only trying to mesh teams of 3 to 6 people

The worship---more what you might experience as small group worship, more sharing, more participation, longer. Not very print culture oriented; use video; not built around sermon but around meal. Some see small group as way to keep people attached to the bigger church; organic sees small group as the main church gathering, everything flows to support it, not other way around. Also almost always contain common meal as central to worship itself.

The membership and structure---no committees; only loose bylaws, hardly any voting. But high expectation on membership: to be a member is to be a leader of a team and to help grow other leaders to take on new teams. First three years without bylaws and meetings as we were forming our culture, getting to know one another, sharing our passions, doing random acts of kindness or servant evangelism in the community.

Minister---perhaps not ordained professional especially in non-denominational organic churches, or if there is one that person is more a trainer or leader of leaders of the groups; if you are clergy-focused then it inherently limits what you can do and when depending on that one person and his or her gifts. I often say in Turley especially an MSW or MBA might be better than M.Div; and we are partnering with the OU Dept. of Social Work on projects in this first site of ours in Turley, the poorest area of Tulsa County; our zip code has the lowest life expectancy in the County.

The thrust of the organic church is to take the anxiety and stress out of church life; to make it refreshing and passionate; to replace sense of obligation with sense of opportunities presented. (Never fully realized; an imperfect mission because we are imperfect humans, thank God; and there is a tendency to fight against that the organic church can be the "real" church)Let me go back to organic gardening. So much of what church leaders often do, that treadmill of producing a production week after week, meeting after meeting, in the rut of trying to attract people just so the status quo can be maintained which gets harder and harder to do, all that is like the pesticides we keep using in gardens that eventually kills the very soil that naturally contains all the life needed in the first place to grow.

And the outcome desired is radically different too. I love the story of that wonderful garden writer, the late Sara Stein, in Noah’s Ark who writes about how she “unbecame a gardener” because of what her default mode for a garden was. She and her husband moved into their new home and acreage and she wanted to put in a garden like she thought she was supposed to. So they went about tearing out all the natural native plants and grasses and trees that were there and replacing them with sod and beds that were planted with exotics that had to be highly maintained and replanted often so its look would stay the same. Then one day she looked outside, out of frustration and exhaustion I bet, and had her ah-ha that she had removed all the life of the nature around her, nothing was allowed to live and reproduce and die, not only grasses and plants but she didn’t have any of the wildlife, birds and bees and frogs and foxes and so much more that had been right outside her door before. She had organized away the organic. So she went back and began all over again, this time putting in a native-plant, wildlife friendly low maintenance, ecologically-sensitive habitat.
The organic church movement is having to, as one writer’s book was called, Unlearn Church.

The real difference? She changed what her definition of a garden and a gardener was. Before it was something that reflected her relationship with herself and what she thought her human neighbors would want; it was an extension of her ability to control nature. But after her transformation the garden for her became a way to be in relationship with nature, particularly her local piece of nature. She became a kind of temporary caretaker of something that ultimately didn’t belong to her; she saw herself as part of a something beyond herself, her time and place. Her moral obligations were enlarged.

So likewise the organic church revolution emphasizes that Church is not a Place Where, but a People Who. That makes all the difference in what follows. The organic church revolution emphasizes that Church is universal as the “people of a relational God who are on God’s mission in the world” and so church is not a monoculture but polyculture. Knowing this frees up the aim of any particular local incarnation of that people to respond in the best way it can to live relationally with those in its wider community. And since the aim of the organism is to reproduce and multiply, so the organic church, in its own DNA, is not fully a church until it has multiplied. That’s why it makes all the difference in the world to think about starting a church-planting church, instead of just starting a church.

Now another thing that both organic gardeners and organic church folks say is that what they do is not new. Gardeners often say “we are going back to the way my folks or grandparents did and they didn’t call it anything special; they didn’t have to call it organic; it was just the garden; it was just growing your food; just filling your yard with the beauty God had planted there.” So organic church leaders talk about ours as an “ancient-future” faith; going back to the way church was in its first 300 years before it became corrupted by being a part of the Empire, of Christendom. Gardeners and church growers both have a distrust of what was called “modern methods.”

For many organic gardeners, and ethical eaters, we have been put back in the time when you had to grow most of your own food to survive; put back there because of the consequences of the modern agribusiness world.

For the organic church growers, it has all come about because of the collapse of the churched culture, the end of Christendom, which one has dated to a particular Sunday in 1963 when the movie theater in Greensboro, South Carolina opened for a showing. It signaled the beginning of the end of the time in American culture when people were expected to go to church, were born with a church identity, when most religion in your town could be summed up as simply Protestant, Catholic, or Jew, and when people were still living in and being formed mostly by print-culture and the focus was on “the organizational man,” the chain of command with everything in its place on a flowchart like cogs of a machine, when even the Newtonian machine-like view of the Universe was slipping away.

Since then the religious landscape, like other cultural manifestations, has seen a tremendous disruption and change. The surrounding culture to a church is now more like what it was in the first 300 years after Jesus—more pluralistic, the church is more marginalized, there is a rapidly changing mode of communicating, and the emphasis on the individual alone is giving way, especially among those born after 1975, to an emphasis on the communal or social nature of a person, with the rise of fictive families and new tribalism. De-centralization is in. You know it is a new world when new Christian evangelical leaders, or as they call themselves post-evangelical organic missional leaders, are looking at the model not only of the underground house church movement in Asia, but also of the way viruses and epidemics spread and how Al-Queda works.

For me it is all important for a few reasons:
I do care about the religious values that have been incarnated in the Unitarian and Universalist traditions and I would like to see them live on after me and not go the way of the dinosaur when the environment changes as it has. We are less and less of an influence on the world around us.
But my ultimate allegiance isn’t to a denomination and I see all forms of spiritual communities, and the notion of authentic community itself endanger of being overwhelmed and left behind by the entertainment/marketplace fantasy producers of pseudo-community that tends to drive people away from one another and results in treating the sacred, that is people and our environments, as objects instead of subjects with inherent worth.
And I care about the ways we have organic, relational, less-anxious lives because that is the way we will be able to best transform our communities, our families, our workplaces into sacred places. And organic churches can be a place where we practice and risk and hold up as valuable those kind of lives and those kinds of places.
And ultimately, for me, it is because I seek to be in relationship with an organic, growing, relational Spirit I call God, as a free follower of the way of Jesus, whose whole story is an organic one.

So I will end with one of the many such stories from Jesus. My seminary teacher and author Brandon Scott calls it the parable of the dinner party. Think of it as the parable of the church.

In a world where on one hand the banquets of the well-off were for and with the well-off, and on the other hand there were many who even if they were able to get food on a regular basis, would have to eat it alone because of their outcast nature, Jesus said God’s world, God’s party, God’s meal, God’s kingdom, I would say God’s organic church, in fact Jesus was saying God is like ---
“A man who was giving a big dinner and invited many guests. At the dinner hour the host sent his slave to tell the guests: “Come it’s ready now.”But one by one they all began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I just bought a farm, and I have to go and inspect it; please excuse me.” And another said, “I just bought five pairs of oxen, and I’m on my way to check them out; please excuse me.” And another said, “I just got married, and so I cannot attend.” So the slave came back and reported these (excuses) to his master. The master said to his slave, “Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.”Here, in this ancient example, we find a clue to the emergent organic church. Church is the dinner we make and eat with others. The radical part of Jesus’ parable is that he is saying God is also the dinner we make and eat with others, especially with those whom we wouldn’t normally think of inviting. Banquets of the rich were highly-organized, controlled, predictable—then and now--but this new dinner is spontaneous, risky, permission-giving, downright contagious.
We in the church are in a time when guests are making excuses for not coming inside the house for our dinner. They don’t even both making excuses anymore. And others don’t think the dinner is for them.

Maybe those invited guests who didn’t become guests were the usual ones for his parties and were often invited. To them it was no big deal. Well, Jesus is saying that for God, to be in God, being together is a big deal.
The man giving the dinner was rich and he was inviting those like him, who had much already. Jesus is saying God and those whom we should be in relationship with will not have much already, in the many ways that “much already” can be known, and yet they will give us much.
Maybe even the invited ones knew something about his dinners and had grown bored with them, or they weren’t nutritious food for the soul. Jesus is saying that God is the opposite of boredom, and that if you are being fed stones instead of bread, or if you are feeding others stones instead of bread, you better change. There’s more to life than your ruts; there are your roots and how you are nourishing them.
Or maybe, probably, the guests were simply (simply?) taking care of their own worth in the world’s eyes, worrying about maintaining their success in the world’s eyes—tending to their property—instead of looking for opportunities to be in right relationship with others.
And so Jesus says the boundaries of the dinner/the church, the invitations, must be expanded. A whole new world of people will become the church. Or so we hope—in truth, the parable leaves us with only the invitation, as Brandon Scott points out, not the arrival. We do know that the people who would be coming to the dinner from the new invitations would not be the ones that would bring honor to the host in that culture’s worldview, but instead they would likely cause his friends and neighbors to think he should be shamed.

And so with that the whole nature and purpose of the dinner is transformed, seen with a new perspective.
In fact the organic church revolution now might go this parable one further and say we need to take the meal, the church, make the meal, the church, outside of the house and into the streets and other places where we will find our company and where in what follows there will no longer be differences between guest and host.
The welcoming table becomes a truly moveable feast. And that’s the spirit of the organic church. May it also be the spirit of our lives.
Type rest of the post here

Apostle Paul and Missional Church/Planting

This next week I will once again be at the Southwest Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute, i.e. church camp, and will be presenting a four-day hour-plus workshop this year on "The New Paul Perspective." Turning upside down everything you may have learned in Sunday School. And that is important for all trying to turn upside down the kind of church of which "Sunday School" was so typical. On Sunday Jan. 29 I will also be preaching at Tulsa All Souls Church 10 a.m. on "The Revolutionary Paul for the 21st Century." When I think about my model, my inspiration, for organic church planting, it is the Apostle Paul. I think the New Paul Perspective might have been the most important subject-matter kind of thing I took from my seminary education and in the six years since then I have so enjoyed seeing the new understanding of Paul sweep into more and more of religious discourse and into church controversies.

You can find out so much more (than you'd ever want to know ?!) at But the radical nature of this early follower of Jesus (earliest of commentators on Jesus), actually attempting to incarnate and spread Jesus' spirit into the life of communities is where I go for the most scriptural companionship to what I am engaged in both here in Turley and globally through the UU Christian Fellowship. (Speaking of UUCF and Paul, check out for this year's focus on Paul through the work of our keynoter John Dominic Crossan).

Here is the (non-nuanced and overly broad of course) outline for the workshop. I will post the sermon and more when I return.

The New Paul Perspective
SWUUSI Workshop, 2007

Monday: Introductions and “The Old Paul Perspective” and The Historical Paul

Hellenistic—Hebraic mix and convergence and margins of worldviews. Ideal of Divine Power in dominant cultures. Alexander, Augustus Octavia, King David
7 authentic letters (1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans), 50-60 b.c.e. pre-Temple destruction. At death some 2,000 followers of Jesus-faith in all Roman Empire. Bits of other letters; others we know of but don’t have, later interpolations. Paul not writing “scripture.” Influence of Greco-Roman Rhetoric for oral presentations of letters. Diatribe Exchanges.
Mission to the Gentiles, the God-Fearers, but born, lived, died a Jew, promoting an extension of God of Israel covenant to Gentiles.
Travels and Travails; controversial then and now because dealing with controversies, and with new communities. Urgency because of apocalyptic beliefs.
5. Untimely born, often sick, Jew in Diaspora, bi-vocational, unmarried, Pharisee (dedicated, spiritual Jew), Roman citizen (?), epiphany leading not to conversion from one religion to another, but from “persecutor” to “persecuted” promoter of Jesus as Messiah faith, Death in Rome?

Tuesday: The Theological Paul

1. Focus is on God’s action--in favoring Abraham, in Jesus, and in near future. A form of Unitarianism/Jewish monotheism ultimately—Jesus is “Christed” by God, adoptionist Christology, Christ Jesus and Christ Community, God’s Holy Spirit go-between. But also Philippian’s “kenotic” hymn (ch. 2) of God’s emptying into form of slave even unto cross then raised up and filled with God again. A core incarnational theology.
2. Crucifixion—Jesus died and was raised by God “for us” (on behalf of, not in place of). To allow Gentiles an entry point into God of Israel’s covenant. A form of universalism. Crucifixion a counter-cultural symbol. A parable of God’s kingdom. S. Stowers on Paul’s belief that Jesus chose not to use his divine powers while living, believing that they would be stronger in life after death, and for Gentiles inclusion as well.
3. Resurrection---uses Greek word “anastasis,” a waking, rising to consciousness. Spiritual Body (not anti-body as Socratic/Platonic were). Community Focus. Not “Rapture.” Tied in With Apocalyptic New Realm Coming. Heaven come to redeem earth, not earth being destroyed and becoming Heaven.
4. Justification, putting into right alignment, through “faithfulness”. Torah does that primarily for those born Jew. Living “in Christ” does that for Gentiles.
5. Anti-Imperial. Radical egalitarian Community and Sacred Meal. Distinctions of culture are not denied, but are superceded by spirit of inclusion, oneness, in “Body of Christ.”
6. Paul and “ongoing revelation”, also the “renewal of your minds” as part of spiritual growth and transformation.

Wednesday: The Paul Controversies

1. Paul and Women. Women were fellow travelers and church leaders. Husbands and wives told to act equally toward one another, both from God (women not to speak an interpolation from later? other later sayings in letters only attributed to Paul.) Women and Men and headcoverings, hair pinned up. Not fighting over some points of culture that will soon be transformed.
2. Paul in the Margins. Paul and other followers of the Torah, over God’s choice of Jesus as Messiah. Paul and other followers of Jesus as Lord, over circumcision. Paul and others in Hellenistic world, over domination practices.
3. Paul and Sexuality. Concern with cultural practices of promiscuous sex. No understanding of the English word “homosexuality” or sexual orientation. Celibacy to help keep orientation on living “in Christ” but marriage also fine.

Thursday: Carry-over Conversation and Paul’s Model For Our Churches and Lives Today
1. Missional living and Church planting and organic church, helping lay foundation for religious movement going from marginal to dominant in 300 years
2. Living in community through self-differentiation and mission-focus
3. Risk and Commitment and Blessings of Fallibility\
4. Incorporating pluralities into self, community, God
5. Counter-cultural, even apocalyptic tendency, against Marketplace/Entertaiment God and affluence, appearance, achievement.

New Translations from having “faith in Jesus” to following the “faithfulness of Jesus”:

“Thus the RSV grossly distorts the Greek of Gal: 3:22: “But scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ [ek pisteos Iesou Christou] might be given to those who believe.” The phrase ek pisteos Iesou Christou cannot mean ‘to faith in Jesus Christ.” Rather the promise was “on the basis of Jesus Christ’s faithfulness.” Similiarly the RSV, following the KJV, translates Rom: 3:26 as follows: “to prove..that he himself [God] is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.” (ton ek pisteos Iesou). The translation “faith in Jesus” goes against Greek grammar in general, LXX and New Testament usage, and Paul’s own usage elsewhere. ..Thus God “justifies the one who lives on the basis of Jesus’ faithfulness….God’s righteousness has been manifested through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who are faithful (Rom. 3:22).”
Stanley Stowers, A Rereading Of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles. Yale Univ. Press.

Even the NRSV in Rom 3: 26 makes a footnote that an alternative interpretation is “faith of Jesus.” And the King James Version uses this option too.

A Few Books For Further Study:
---John Buehrens book Understanding the Bible, by former UUA president
---Marcus Borg, Rereading the Bible, Episcopal-Lutheran professor of religion
---UUCF Journal, “A Paul for Unitarian Universalists” by Robin Scroggs, United Church of Christ minister.
---Reinventing Paul by Paul Gager, non-Christian Princeton religious scholar
---A Rereading of Romans by Stanley Stowers, professor of religion.
---In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, a new vision of Paul’s Words and World. John Dominic Crossan
---God and Empire by John Dominic Crossan
---Making Sense of Paul by Virginia Miles, professor of religion
---Paul and Empire, ed. By Richard A. Horsley
---Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, Donald Akenson, professor of History
---Paul Beyond the Judaism/Hellenism Divide, ed. Troels Engberg-Pedersen
---The Letters of Paul with a Preface by John Shelby Spong, Episcopal bishop retired (has the speculation of Paul as homosexual)
---The Gnostic Paul by Elaine Pagels, professor of religion.
---The Good Book, by Peter C. Gomes, Harvard professor
---What Paul Meant by Garry Wills
---Paul: A Jew on the Margins by Calvin Roetzel
---Paul: The Man and the Myth by Calvin Roetzel
---The Misunderstood Jew (section on Paul in this book about Jesus) by Amy-Jill Levine
---What St. Paul Really Said by N.T. Wright (more traditional NPP)
---Paul: A Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright (more traditional NPP)
---Navigating Paul by Jouette Bassler
--Our Mother St. Paul by Beverly Gaventa (feminine imagery by Paul)
---Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene by Bart Ehrman

Type rest of the post here

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Using the word "church" in your name

Recently on the email list for International Unitarian Universalists, there has been a reprise of that issue about the word "church" in the name of religious bodies. Here is my post:

"Interesting that among the growing "emergent/organic" movement across the globe within Christianity, the word "church" is rarely found in terms of local gatherings and groups; the de-churched and the unchurched are turned off by it and what expectations it holds. For one small list of these you might check out the communities section on the website,; this movement is primarily in North America, Australia and the U.K. Of course not using the word church is also consistent for them since they are also different in many ways from what people born before 1963 often think of in the default mode when they hear the word "church." (what I meant by that is that there isn't a single building, single worship, single organization, perhaps not single leader called minister, single time they meet; the point isn't to gather as spectators at worship service, etc.)

The typical Unitarian/Universalist "church" might be theologically different from the norm for the word church, but in all other ways it usually is still presenting itself as a church the way churches did in the 1950s, 1800s, and before. Perhaps the most important point for the emergent/organic movement, as opposed to U/U churches, is that being a part of Christianity the movement stresses the ecumenical, even calling itself post-protestant, and so there is only one "the church", what might have been thought of before as the church universal or the Body of Christ, and so this frees the local gathering and group to call itself by any number of things without feeling the necessity of adding the word "church" to it; U/U churches on the other hand, if they don't particularly see themselves in such an ecumenical light, tend to place strong importance on that word "church", whether they are in favor of it or opposed to it. "

Friday, July 06, 2007

"Lord's Prayer" sermon

Here is my original text from which my Father's Day sermon on the Lord's Prayer was taken. It always varies some in delivery. At the end what you don't have execpt in paraphrase is that I read directly from the closing from Carl Scovel's "Beyond The Lecture" sermon republished in the UU Christian Reader anthology. I will try to add it when I have time. The reading was from Amy Jill-Levine's sections on the "Lord's Prayer" taken from her great recent book on Jesus called "The Misunderstood Jew." If you don't have the UU Christian Reader book or the Levine book, you should :). I can sell you the Reader from our UUCF inventory. What I have noticed since at The Living Room Church we have conversation and not sermon-centered worship is that it gets harder and harder to write out a sermon ahead of time; even delivering it orally would be different and difficult; conversational mutual exploring and still containing "proclamation of the gospel" is beginning to spoil me to the more modernistic spectator-oriented ways of most churches. I will have more to say about the "theatrical captivity" of the worship service soon.

“Our Father” sermon Hope Church in Tulsa, Rev. Ron Robinson, 6-17-07

It is risky to preach a sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father” on Father’s Day—the last thing many fathers need, even on this day, is a God complex.

But actually the “Our Father,’ or as I like to call it the Disciples Prayer because it was taught to those following Jesus, is a very good antidote for that God complex, to fathers, to political leaders, and religious leaders. So it is risky but it is good to be reminded of it, and especially introduced to its new versions and even its original versions. As Professor Amy-Jill Levine said, the real problem with it is that it has become either too familiar or too connected with only the Christian tradition. It’s spiritual power breaks through that familiarity and can speak to all of us.

You may know that there have been lots of revisions of it down through the ages; lately new translators have gone back to the Aramaic Jesus spoke and recreated what it might have been like in that language. The earliest we have is in the Greek language of the New Testament and that differs between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts and both of those differ from what you find in the English translation of the King James Version which added on the final doxology that isn’t there in the original Greek versions.

New translators have picked up on the “Our Father” bit the most too, and have said something like “Creator Parent” is a better depiction of what Jesus would have spoken. Many others go for the essence and reword it to speak to new generations.

But before I get to them let me see if you have heard one of the latest. It is from the singer-songwriter Susan Werner and her new album The Gospel Truth. She refers to herself as an agnostic evangelical. I like her version. Full of faith and has the kind of radical in your face approach Jesus’ would have had for his first century listeners. (I then sang the song acapella)

Thy kingdom come to every nationThy will be done in everything we doLord, lead us not into temptationAnd deliver usfrom those who think they're YouLord send us forth to be of serviceTo build the schools and dig the wellsAnd deliver us from the creepy preachersWith their narrow minds and very wide lapelsLord give us strength to bring compassionto every corner of the worldAnd please allow for women in the Catholic priesthoodAnd remind the pope that he coulda been a girlLord deliver us from politiciansWho drop Your name in every speechAs if they're Your best friend from high schoolAs if they practice what they preach

And then there is the one from Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible called The Message. More orthodox but poetic and captures the spirit well:
Our Father in Heaven Reveal who you are. Set the world right: Do what’s best—as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in Charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

And the UU version by Lala Winkley in our hymnal:
God, lover of us all, most holy one, help us to respond to you, to create what you want for us here on earth. Give us today enough for our needs, forgive our weak and deliberate offenses, just as we must forgive others when they hurt us. Help us to resist evil and to do what is good; for we are yours, endowed with your power to make our world whole.

As Professor Levine writes, especially in light of the Jewish tradition in which Jesus lived and taught, this prayer has dimensions for many today. It has been an historic part of many of our oldest Unitarian Universalist churches and is still recited weekly in a minority of them today. Most are in the Council of Christian Churches within the UUA but other historic ones do too. One of my favorite stories about our free church tradition is about the use of the Lord’s Prayer in public worship.

I was visiting the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, Mass. For worship. It was founded in 1785 and so it is one of the new kids on the block for our churches in New England. It has within it a good variety of theological orientations among its members; one of its ministers is a past president of the UUCF where I am on staff and a few of its leading members are leaders in the UU Buddhist Fellowship. And there are others as you would find in most of our churches, especially the largest majority which hates to be labeled as anything.

The worship included the Lord’s Prayer, traditional language as it had been said in that church from its beginning. And then right after that, one of the ministers, who describes herself as a Theist but not Christian, gave a sermon on why Atheists are welcome in the church.

In my position, I spend a lot of my time talking about Christ to Unitarian Universalists, but I also get to talk to Christians about Unitarian Universalists, and I like to include, to them, that parable of the free church that took place in Worcester. It answers the question they have of what attraction UUism has for a Christian. For me it gets to the radical heart of the gospel of freedom and the approach to the spiritual life Jesus and Paul and other early followers exhibited before the Empire became a part of the church and changed things. So when I get that question how can you be a Christian and a UU, and get it from both UUs and Christians, it gives me a chance to tell the Worcester parable, to talk about the spirit of religious liberty in the church, and to ask back rhetorically, especially to my fellow Christians: how can you not be? With parables that good happening all around in our free churches.

This prayer has been an important part of my own spiritual life as well. Just as being a father has. From the time I became a father for the first time in 1984, and went to part-time or at-home work much of the time when my daughters were in their pre-pre-school years, I have tried to break free from my cultural “default mode’’ of a father’s role. I chafed when I was called Mr. Mom. I said no I wasn’t “babysitting” when asked about having them, as I was juggling one of them on my hips in that swaying motion, in the long long shopping lines. I was one of those dads before there were the diaper changing stations in the men’s restrooms, and have plenty of stories of doing diaper duty on the carpeted floor of the men’s rooms in fancy hotels as the men stepped around. I could only imagine their looks because I was in too much of a hurry to get things done and get out.

I have tried to break free of those pre-conceived roles, but not always successfully. Workaholism, even volunteer style, is a big problem for many and not just fathers of course. Learning to be disciplined in one’s own life so you can impart it to others. Finding a calm center so you can provide a safe environment and not go from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. The great UU theologian James Luther Adams once said there is no such thing as a ‘good man/good person.” There is only a good father. A good husband. A good citizen. A good neighbor. A good worker. Etc. That goodness doesn’t exist in an other-worldly spiritual realm, but in our relationships. And I would add that all of our relationships are, no surprise, related. It has been a learning curve to understand that being a good father also means being, just for example, a good husband, a good housekeeper.

Back in 1994, daughters 10 and three years old, I was wrapped up in the starting of a new UU church in Tahlequah and with other community activities and was busy here in Tulsa on the Nimrod literary staff and was nearing my peak in my fiction writing career, and I was at a spiritual loose end inside. I was only just dipping my toe in the world of UU Christianity then, having been a UU since 1974, and like most of us in the UUCF having come to our Christianity actually in and through our free churches and most often not in our UU Christian churches. I had just started a campus ministry at NSU where I had once been a student and faculty member and one of the programs one of the students arranged was for a favorite faculty member and folk musician to come talk about his spiritual side. He was Roman Catholic, another of those parables of the free church, and he talked about a daily practice of once or twice a day being in meditation with the Lord’s Prayer. He shared it with us.

That night when I got home, in bed before falling asleep, I tried it again. And have ever since. At first I admit I would bungle some of the words. It had been a long time since my Methodist upbringing. But soon it became a part of my life; the words coming to me in times of anxiety, in times when I needed, as we say in parental support groups, to be calm, consistent, courteous, and courageous.

I also, even when I wanted to, had a hard time praying. It wasn’t a part of my UU adult life up to then. And I know as a writer I was always stymied in spoken prayer too because I thought I had to get it just right, use the right words, don’t pause or stumble or repeat myself or be mauldling or mundane or god forbid sentimental—all those UU sins of perfection. But the Lord’s Prayer spiritual discipline helped even though it was as much or more meditation than prayer. Still, just as what I would tell writing students, you develop your own voice by first learning and moving through the voices of the writers who are better than you.

Gradually, the more I prayed the “Our Father”, with its basic rhthyms of the themes of gratitude, plea for justice, for simple sustenance, for forgiveness, unity, and down-on-your-knees deliverance from temptation and evil, the more comfortable I became with prayer in other ways. It really came in handy during my hospice chaplain days, as a healthy reminder that it wasn’t about my anxiety, and how good or not I thought I was with prayer, but about being present with the dying and their families.

Over the past 13 years I don’t know how much of a better father it has made me. I don’t know how much of a better Christian or follower of Jesus it has made me. Both of those labels, father and Christian, since they are inherently relational, mean they are never finished. I have never arrived. And that is one of the spiritual lessons the prayer has taught me.

Over the past 13 years my meditation on the prayer and its words has taken me deep into it. Like my colleague Laurel Hallman in Dallas in her work on spiritual practices called Living by Heart and particularly with poems, I know the value of having memorized something so well it can come to you in lots of different ways, places, and times, and you can go deep into it. Even if you only have a minute, or think you only have a minute. At different times, dwell on a word, or the silence, or the movement of words.

I have spent much time in meditation never getting past the “Our” in “Our Father.” That might be one of the most important parts of the prayer and doesn’t get near the attention that the gender gets it. But Jesus here doesn’t say “My Father” but “Our Father.” Right away that takes us out of ourselves, reminds us of our wider relationships and identity, and that is good news for all fathers, for all.

And as Levine points out, the Father language has a political cultural edge to it. Like Jesus’ parables about the “Kingdom of God” they are reminders that the powers here on earth are not the ultimate powers, not who we ought to ultimately be answering to and seeking to align our lives in accordance to. These may be false powers in the White House, in our neighborhood associations, in our jobs, or in our own human hearts.

I will close with a story in this vein about Fathers and Our Father. One you may have heard before, but can stand to hear again. Like Levine says of the “Our Father” prayer, beware of familiarity and thinking you have it all understood. I think this story is becoming part of our UU testaments, though it comes largely from Tex Sample, a United Church of Christ seminary professor and great storyteller. I know it because of a story one of my mentors, Carl Scovel, told after he gave the annual ministerial Berry Street Lecture at our General Assembly, coincidentally also in 1994, the year I began meditating on the “Our Father.”. Carl this year celebrates his 50th year in ministry and has been chosen by the 50-year colleagues to give the talk for them at this year’s General Assembly.

Carl delivered his essay called Beyond Spirituality. In it he said that at the heart of all reality lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, and to which we shall at last return. This is the supreme mystery of our lives. This goodness is ultimate—not fate, not freedom, not mystery, energy, order nor finitude, but his good intent in creation is our source, our center, and our destiny. Our work on earth is to explore, enjoy and share this goodness. Too much of a good thing, Mae West said. Is wonderful.” Sound theology.”

One of Carl’s two chosen respondents was a longtime friend and UU colleague and iconoclast humanist, Deane Starr. Deane disagreed with Carl’s statements in his essay, but in closing Deane led the group in a spontaneous singing of the hymn “In the Garden” with the words And he walks with me and He talks with me and He tells me I am his own.” Deane had grown up fundamentalist and he had picked that song part in tribute to Carl’s theology and part, as he was soon retiring, to bring his own life full circle.

A few days later Deane called Carl and said did you notice how many of the UU ministers that were the audience were crying as they sang the hymn. He said he found out that earlier in the day, while he and Carl were in their rooms busy working on what they would say, Tex Sample was addressing the other UU ministers. He was telling them about how he, a liberal Christian, looked down on fundamentalists and used to make fun of their ways of talking and singing and in his presentations would mock sing that hymn, In the Garden. Until one day a woman came up to him afterwards and said “I want to tell you something about that hymn. From the time I was about ten years old until I was about fourteen, my father raped me almost every day of my life. After he was finished I’d put my clothes on, and I’d go out into the backyard, and I’d walk slowly about the yard and I’d sing that hymn. It was the only thing that kept me sane, the only thing that kept me from killing myself. Because when I sang that hymn, I knew I was somebody. I hope you’ll remember that the next time you sing it.”

And Carl, hearing that, soon after wrote this: (I read from the UUCF publication; If you don't have this you should get it; the double issue anthology celebrating our 50th year back in 1995 is available for $20 from the UUCF office. But basically it is about how all things work together and revealed the great surmise that at the heart of reality is a good intent, and how in UUism Christians lecture and humanists lead hymns.)

And so it is risky to preach of God and fathers and the “Our Father.” It may bring up all kinds of things in our lives, in our theologies. But may it also, as the closing verse of our own closing hymn is about to say: May it fill us with a living vision, heal our wounds that we may be bound as one beyond division in the struggle to be free. Grant us wisdom (from unfamiliar places), grant us courage (to tell our stories), give us ears to hear and eyes to see, ears to hear and eyes to see.