Saturday, December 22, 2007

Latest Post from Turley: The Living Room Church/A Third Place Center/Christmas

Hi all.

The ice is gone. The sun is brightly shining. The air, for now, is warm. So we can see clearly all around us practically every tree in every yard, every park, and all across Turley Hill is cut in half, revealing the yellowish inside bark of the broken limbs, standing out against the gray of the trees like grotesque ornaments in this last week of Advent, five days, as the commercials say, until Christmas. Everywhere you look the wounded, gashed trees reminding us, if we care to reflect upon it, of the walking wounded here and everywhere too, especially this close to Christmas. The more the downed limbs and debris are pulled away and hauled to the streets and piled up there, the more readily we see the scarred trees that are still, for now, rooted.

So it is with life, and with this holiday, and the trees we cry over--like the small Christmas tree my wife Bonnie and her family planted forty some years ago after the holiday, out by the road where we now live, which had grown to more than forty feet tall and which we were just about, again, to decorate--these trees remind us of the people we cry for, with, and against.

In one of my favorite recent books called "Wide Open Spaces: Beyond Paint-by-Number Christianity" by Jim Palmer (2007, Thomas Nelson), author of the earlier "Divine Nobodies," writes this:

"We were at the mall browsing around in stores a couple of days before Christmas when I heard an angry father ripping into his little boy. I looked over and saw the man dragging his son out of the store by his arm. He forced him onto a bench and was unrelenting in his verbal assault as the kid just sat there in a heap of shame. Suddenly a tidal wave of emotion crashed over me. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream, I wanted to beat the man senseless. Crap. I came so close to making it through Christmas without being tormented by the ghosts of my childhood past. Not this year. Have a freaking merry Christmas! That night, with those feelings still raw, I felt compelled to write the following blog post:

Here's to all the walking wounded...
to those still carrying a little heartbroken boy or girl inside;
to those who feel rejected and lonely;
to those who woke up with a dull ache inside;
to those who are wondering where God is in the midst of their deep pain;
to those whose past wounds have been pulled opened yet again;
to those weary and worn out and longing for some place called home;
to those in the darkness who can't seem to find the light;
to those who wonder if they will ever find love;
to those who feel misunderstood;
to the abandoned and discarded;
to those who feel they are running out of reasons to get out of bed each morning;
to those in the clutches of depression;
to those who are smiling on the outside but dying on the inside;
to those suffering in silence,
Here's to all the walking wounded...
Merry Christmas. "

So the first Christmas came amidst the walking wounded, and so it has been repeated every single year, somewhere, no everywhere, since. And Christmas came.

On Christmas Eve nights, during the services of worship (ours by the way will begin around 11 p.m. and finish at midnight Christmas morning, all invited), it is traditional to read in the beginning of the reading of the story the first verse from Luke 2. All my life I have been hearing or speaking that opening verse on Christmas Eve, and yet it is almost treated as a throw-away verse. It's purpose it seems is just to get the story started, the pageant on the way. This is it: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed."

This is a classic case of modern biblical scholarship being helpful and a hindrance. On one hand, most all agree that there wasn't any such decree issued. The Lukan gospel writer, writing some sixty years after the death of Jesus and some ninety years or so after the birth of Jesus, is using it to make story-sense so Jesus' family can get from Nazareth, where Jesus was most likely actually born, to Bethlehem, where it was considered the Messiah would be born. Matthew's gospel just puts the birth in Bethlehem to begin with. All of these infancy stories came about so much later from Paul's witness and the sayings accounts because in those days it wasn't the birth of Jesus that was a big deal; it was about what God had done in resurrecting such a faithful marytred one and was about to do to the whole world in overturning the rule of Caeser with the impending rule of God.

That's all nice to know. If it helps us clear away the debris and see the deeper truth revealed.

Here and now I am drawn back to that opening verse and to the truth that the forces and the powers in the world and in our lives can tax us, oppress us, break us, bend us down, especially at this time of the year, five days before Christmas. Tax us with obligations, with old memories, disillusionment from broken old hopes, yes with financial burdens and expectations, with time itself, and always just out of the corner of our eyes as we pass the television or newspaper with the fates of so many innocents in our world still being slaughtered, and beyond that outside of the omnipresent eye of the media's camera. We are taxed at times even by our wealth and our unwillingness to tax ourselves to participate in the common good.

That opening verse of the Christmas Story in Luke sums it up--the whole world is taxed. That's the way Christmas begins, not with Walmart's decorations the day after Labor Day. We face that or the birth of Christ doesn't come into our lives and world anymore than it would in the pursuit of things. For that's always the way Christmas comes, in and through the walking wounded, an apt description for the strange couple in our story, moving through the night, trying to keep away from bandits and occupying soldiers and the good and respectable people who had rooms in the inn and wouldn't understand.

It is in these such places, and times, and these such people, and this story, that God invests. That is the message and power of the Christmas Story. It is about God's investment. Where, of all the world, God chooses to invest, to be, to risk, to make a difference.

[sidenote: That is a Christmas message I wish all the investors of our wider area and world would get today too; oh you can go where the profits are easily turned up and shown in such a percentage that you get on a treadmill of needing higher and higher percentage of return, putting up restaurants and businesses and hospitals and new homes and apartments where they already exist; but it is in the Nazareths and Turleys of the world, and in the places even more remote and despairing, where miracles will happen that give life its sacred meaning, and I am so thankful for the few who are "inn-vesting" in even subtle and ways of the spirit here with us through A Third Place, and which I try to lift up in my other reports throughout the year. This recent ice storm, as all disasters do, revealed both a willingness of people to help one another, and it hit across economic lines for the most part, but also revealed the inequality of the investment the world has made. Not only even in the wealthier parts of town was it the older parts of the city hit hardest, as compared to the newer suburbs, and the nursing homes for elderly and disabled were hit hard by being abandoned and not planned for, but even when the hospitals and public facilities and major areas around them were attended to first, as they should have been because of the place of greatest vulnerability, it just revealed how none of them were in northern urban Tulsa and surrounding sections to begin with. Utility officials spoke of allocating their resources exactly evenly in each of four quadrants with the midpoint being the area of Promenade Mall and Southroads Mall in south Tulsa, (and lord knows the workers themselves did great work and were out of their way to be helpful especially those coming in from out of state} but that turns out to be a case of separate not being equal when it is the places of greatest poverty where without great effort people can't get to gas stations, if any are found, or once there afford the gas to go in the generators which they can't buy because there aren't stores close by to sell them, or to grocery stores to buy food, especially healthy food. Or can't get to restaurants to eat if restaurants get power restored because there aren't any restaurants, especially not to those on foot or who couldn't get their cars out of their driveways due to fallen trees and debris and damaged homes. And of course, old story for those who have followed my reports from Turley, but if you are one of the tens of thousands who live more than a single mile north of downtown Tulsa you can't even pay to get pizza delivered from a pizza place just on the other side of town that might have its power back on. :). This is the "holy anger" or sacred outrage we were discussing the other Sunday evening as part of our discussion of Shane Claiborne's book The Irresistible Revolution, where we use anger instead of it using us, and when daily around here and on the media I hear angry Christians upset at this or that use of Happy Holidays or Winter Parties in public schools, I know theirs is an unholy anger because it grows out of self-interest instead of the interest of others and the plight of the fragile, the truly suffering, the minorities. Their outrage is the social status quo outrage of Empire Caeser Christians and not the outlawed, truly martyred, still faithful followers of Jesus in the first few centuries who knew that their faith would not or need not be celebrated in public spectacles, and who were dedicated to being in right relationship with those who were not of their faith. In a world of Darfur and the death penalty, it is a sin to be distracted by so-called "cultural wars" especially those related to the birth of Christ.]

And it came to pass in our days, too, that there went out a decree....

And it came to pass in our days, too, that "she should be delivered." Mary, Miriam, whose name in Hebrew means bittersweet. It is through our Miriams Jesus comes.

And it came to pass, in our days too, that a place without praise and from which no good was said to come, received God's investment and the world was changed forever, and a small, vulnerable place where the mighty of many nations destroyed over and over again throughout milennia will nevertheless, because of that investment, be remembered again this Christmas Eve by billions of the walking wounded, in song and silence and prayer and service to others.

blessings and Merry Christmas, Ron,
"And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them."

p.s. we party tonight and sing beginning at 6:30 p.m., Thu. Dec. 20, and this coming Sunday Dec. 23 we eat together and have our fourth Sunday of Advent (Hope) worship circle and watch "The Nativity Story" movie all from 4:30ish to 7ish, and on Monday, Christmas Eve Dec. 24 our midnight service of lessons and carols and candles and communion begins at 11 p.m., all here at our A Third Place community center, 6514 N. Peoria Ave., Turley OK 74126, 918-691-3223 or 918-794-4637, and give thanks for recent gifts of shelves and books to our library and center by Stoner Nesbitt which helps us to triple the size of our public library and spruce up our donation room which is active this season, and to the local Odd Fellows Lodge for donating proceeds from the monthly community pancake breakfast to us ($100), and to the Areawide Aging Agency and Masonic lodge for donating carbon monoxide detectors for us to distribute free to homes where someone is 55 years or older.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

UU Growth: Goal/Outcome: False Dichotomy

For background go to

Good blogging on a recent UU growth consultation. This is one of the blogs on one of the two most important points (growth as goal or outcome; the other most important one is the blog on the purpose of the church).

But it is a false dichotomy. To be a healthy church IS the most important thing for no lasting growth is possible from being unhealthy; healthy DNA will naturally result in growth--but to be healthy IS to grow; to reproduce one's church, multiply it, spread it, in a myriad of ways church planting, mission planting, organic relationship growing, disciple-making IS the characteristic of a healthy church. At least one in the tradition of church as Jesus' disciples should understand it (now that might be a conversation for another blog, and one not just of course aimed at UU growth, but applying equally or moreso to so-called Christian churches, UU or otherwise, who aren't growing, aren't healthy).

The question I think underlying this is not about growth and health, but about TIME, careers, numbers, scale. Are people looking at growth and thinking in terms of three years, ten years, or thirty or three hundred years. We better be casting our nets into the waters of thirty and three hundred years and not the four-year presidential cycle. End.

Reports From Turley

To give you a glimpse of how we are trying to live and create organic Christian "church" here in our "missional incarnational" way I thought I would include some of our recent email reports from here in Turley, Oklahoma. Enjoy. We are. As I have grown fond of saying, we are a terrible "church' organizationally; but we are a great community ministry. We are more and more living into the three characteristics of the emerging church as described in the book by Bolger and Gibbs--we stress the life or way of Jesus over any other creed doctrine model etc.; we are breaking down the barriers of the modern world that put things into sacred and secular realm (as evidenced by how people come and go in our community center and sometimes stay and participate as we have our Sunday afternoon meal, conversation, small group worship time; and right now I forget the third characteristic (it's on this blog somewhere as I discuss their book lol) but we are following it. Here are some reports from our first site in Turley, OK.

Hi all. A quick, I hope, report from the storm disaster in Turley and the Oklahoma area. Deeper theological responses I am sure will follow as we learn the "adventure" in Advent season. First thanks for all prayers, and our prayers go out to all those of you who are in other areas of the country where you too have been or might be about to be hit this weekend with storms and power outages. And a note about the term dunamis in the subject of this email. It is a greek term, often used in the Christian scriptures, and it stands for power, for spirit, for aliveness and inner authority that comes from God, as opposed to all the kinds of power-over and external authority that come from human empires, including the electrical kind.

The power that comes from electrical companies is still off to our home here in Turley where it went out last Sunday, and to much of our area, but each day we hope it will return, and like Christmas, the big orange and white company trucks, many with workers from faraway places, get closer. The power has come back on now to A Third Place Community Center operated by our Living Room Church and where the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship offices are located, and so you are getting this email.

1. For those of you especially in the Turley and surrounding area, we are keeping the Center open now as much as possible for a warming station/shelter for people and workers. Any time you can give just let me know, as well as make coffee, other warm drinks, refreshments, etc. The Alcoholics Anonymous group will meet again here tonight Saturday at 7 p.m. and then we will be open as much as we can during the day, and if possible and needed, some during the night as well. We were just about the open it up as a shelter on this past Monday when the power went off here and the remaining part of the Turley business district. We already today have had a stream of families and people in to get warm, use the computer center, check out books from the library, and watch TV, get clothes from the donation room, use the restroom, etc.

2. We will have our delayed Community Center Christmas Decoration Party and Potluck tomorrow, Sunday, the 16th, from 4 to 7 p.m.ish so bring something for the potluck, bring Christmas CD music, and help us light up the darkness with both decorations and joy. Prayers and communion and singing included. All invited.

3. The Christmas movie The Nativity Story was cancelled last week due to the storm; we will show it and discuss as part of our Sunday meal, worship, Dec. 23, beginning at 5 p.m. Spread the news. All invited.

4. We still have our Christmas Caroling Party planned for Thursday, Dec. 20, at 6:30 p.m. Come and sing and if you know of places we can go to sing close by, let us know.

5. Join with me at one or both events on Christmas Eve, Monday, Dec. 24th. First early in the evening at 5 p.m. at the Turley United Methodist Church, and then here at 11 p.m. at our Community Center for our hosting of our traditional Christmas Eve midnight candle-lighting lessons and carols and communion service.

6. The Second Tuesday of the month Transforming Turley Tuesdays meeting was cancelled due to the storm and will be picked back up in January at 7 p.m. on Jan. 8.

7. We have been chosen to be the center for distributing free carbon monoxide detectors in our area to families where an individual is 55 years or older, sponsored by the Tulsa Area Wide Aging Agency. More information to come and if you'd like to help us distribute these, or know of families in need of one, let me know and thanks to Sandy Sullivan for her work in this area and for thinking of us as a resource center.

8. We had a great turnout for the first visit of the OU medical clinic van to Turley back on Dec. 4. We look forward to hosting this "doctor's office on wheels" very soon two afternoons a week, probably Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, hopefully as soon as January. Begin spreading the news. And it will be focused on primary care with two exam rooms equipped in the mobile clinic; specialty care will be referred to other OU clinics. And we applaud the news that a new super specialty clinic will be built in the next two years near here, about three miles away in north Tulsa. And we applaud the news that OU-Tulsa has adopted our area high school which for years has been on the low-performing list.

9. There will be no meeting of the Turley Community Association in December, but will meet the last Tuesday of January at 7 p.m. in O'Brien Park Rec. Center.

10. At one of our recent church gatherings discussing the latest chapters in our read and discuss book by Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution, we talked about how he and others had organized an Appreciation Dinner for the cleaning workers at his college. Which got us to thinking and dreaming and to begin planning a Turley Business Appreciation Reception in the new year. All the more important as during the past few weeks and past few months we have had two of our few remaining restaurants close down, most recently Mar-Kay's BBQ and Fish House where we had put in a Let Turley Bloom garden as a welcoming gift a few years ago. Help us put on this appreciation dinner for the remaining businesses, and to help use the event to spur on a Turley Businesses Association.

11. We are also getting closer to having firm dates in February, March and April for our community forums and interviews for the Turley Talks program coordinated with the OU Social Work Department. Stay tuned and begin spreading the news and planning to stop by for a few hours on one of these days to talk about life in Turley and envision the future.

12. Stay tuned for a followup report, coming as soon as events allow, as a special Advent/Christmas Message from our missional, incarnational, relational, organic church in Turley.

This past week, as our center was closed, we still put up these words for those able to get out and pass by: May they apply to you as well---Be Safe, Help One Another, Know God Is With Us. (and on the other side we put up the practical suggestion of the local Helpline number for people in need of resources to dial 211).

In God's dunamis, blessings,

Hi all. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never have so few given so much for so many. It is a blessing and a privilege to be with you all and to witness it. Welcome to all of you who can do so too; we need your presence, your support, your witness to others about this new adventure of faith touching lives in the here and now with God's love through you.

Tonight: Thursday, Oct. 4, at 5:30 p.m. we will be continuing our work to bring in a medical clinic to Cherokee Elementary School, and partner with the OU social work department.

Tonight Thursday Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. we will be showing the controversial movie "Crash" and offering a discussion of its themes to the community.

Friday, Oct. 5 from 4 to 8 p.m. we will be helping with the Benefit Bean Supper for the Turley Community Association held at the Turley Fire Station, 6400 N. Peoria Ave., all you can eat for $5 donation. Beans cornbread fried potatotes, more. Spread the word. come be a presence.

Saturday, Oct. 6 8 a.m. to Noon. Turley Clean-Up Day. Come help us clean the streets and witness for what people can do in small ordinary ways to create spirit. Free lunch for all volunteers at the Odd Fellows Lodge, 6227 N. Quincy Ave at noon. Come for the full morning's work or just 30 minutes. Change lives. Bags and bottles of water provided. Meet at "a third place" community center, 6514 N. Peoria Ave. there's nothing like getting into the trash people leave in order to build up and demonstrate that no place and no people are beyond reach, and that here where people are supposed to not care about one another and where they live that people do care, and others care about us. It's a spiritual thing. A way or living as an ordinary radical. We have joked before about the power of people in our community seeing volunteers doing this work without being forced to through court-ordered community service; but it's no joke the way the spirit of service and hope can spread like a counter-contagion. You should see it on the faces of people as they drive by while we pick up the trash, a hopeless task because we know more trash will come (especially given the landfill issues in our area and lack of support from the county officials) but a hope-filled opportunity because we do it not so much to change the landscape, right away anyway, as to change people. Spread the word.

Sunday, Oct. 7, 4:30 p.m. common meal, communion the old fashioned way. 5:30 p.m. a discussion of what it means to be a Christian, from Shane Claiborne's book The Irresistible Revolution. Last week we discussed Resurrecting Church, a very topical chapter for our little faith community on our mission here. He shed his old understanding of church as a building and an institution, and discovered church that is a verb, a people who, as he relates his time being with the homeless who had taken sheltered in the abandoned cathedral in Philadelphia, and learning so much about God from them, about community, about hope, and following Jesus. 6:30 p.m. sharing prayers, song, communion.

More to come, blessings, Ron

The Secret Message of Jesus Sermon

Here is a rough draft from which I recently preached two sermons, one in Louisiana and one in Texas, both titled The Secret Message of Jesus, using readings from the parables, from Brandon Scott's book Reimagine the World, and from Brian McLaren's book The Secret Message of Jesus. Both sermons ended up different from this text but I like to use the texts as blog posts. When you google the words Secret and Jesus you get a lot of end-time scenarios and conspiracies, etc. But I am not interested in that kind of secret; rather in why the essential message and way of Jesus has been kept a secret from so many for so long. You don't need a decoder to get Jesus, as you didn't back then (or else he wouldn't have been crucified). But you do need messengers.

The Secret Message of Jesus

I still remember the day I first learned something liberating of Jesus that had had been a secret to me, to my church, my family, and it seemed most of the society and world. It was in 1974 and I was a college English student in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. I had recently moved emotionally and theologically away from the Methodism of my raising. I was hanging out with a few of the Bahai’s on campus, reading a lot of Nietzche, and a lot of 19th century American writers. In my textbook as I read works by William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and many more, I kept encountering this word Unitarian in their bios. Now I had grown up in the town where I live again now, Turley, Oklahoma, and it is just eight miles north on the very same street from where one of the largest Unitarian churches in the world, even back in 1974, was located, but the word Unitarian was a secret to me too. (Universalism was even more of a secret word; I didn’t really encounter it until after I had been a member of a few Unitarian churches). I decided to write a term paper on these writers’ religion as a way to find out more about it myself and so I spent most of one day in the college library reading and reading what these and other early Unitarian Christians had to say about Jesus, the Bible, God, church, social justice. I came out of the library into the dark of that evening, and into the light, it felt like, of being a Unitarian. And, having been raised with church in my blood, I went to the yellow pages to find the local Unitarian church, there along with all the other churches in Tahlequah, OK. I didn’t find one. How could that be? It was all through the pages of my textbook. Years later, when I returned to Tahlequah to teach and raise a family and to start a UU congregation there, I discovered why the library had such an extensive collection on Unitarianism. One of the librarians there, for whom my wife had actually worked as a student for a few years, had been a Unitarian. Now he hadn’t planted a church, and one would have been oh so helpful to me and the community at that time, but he at least had done something to sow some seeds where he was and how he could, and in doing so to let out one of the main secrets about Jesus--that you didn’t have to only see him as the creeds saw him in order to follow him, be moved, and changed by him. When we did start the UU church in Tahlequah, in the first meeting in our living room, one of the original eight was the widow of that librarian.
And yet, and yet, when I read books by the new emergent evangelicals like Brian McLaren, or the best-selling works by progressives like Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, and so so many more in recent years, I do wonder---why is all this still a secret? Why is it still so new to so many, and to new generations? Unitarians and Universalists, I say, were the original progressive Christians. Why are we most prominently in textbooks, in history, both of a cultural and theological kind in America? Why did we keep the secret to ourselves? And why are we continuing to do so? As one of my colleagues said, himself not a Christian but a lover of all things from the Jesus Seminar, why was the Jesus Seminar necessary since the UUA has been around for so much longer? There are so many wonderful new DVD curriculums out now exploring all the new work by biblical scholars like Brandon Scott, but they aren’t coming from us. We who were on the cutting edge of all things Jesus are now playing catch up. Now it’s better than it was when I became a Unitarian in 1974 and, as they say, in many many places Jesus Christ was only heard back then in the church when the minister tripped on his robe. But we are still sidelined. I’ll give my answer to some of these questions about us at the end, but now I want to get at the heart of the message of Jesus itself. Because getting that wrong might have something to do with why it’s still considered a secret.

When I was growing up as a Methodist, and for years as a Unitarian when I would hear sermons about Jesus, I rarely heard much about the parables of Jesus. It was all, pro or con, about the birth, death, resurrection, and the miracles. Those parables like the prodigal son and the so-called Good Samaritan, the ones that adorned stained glass windows, even in historic UU Christian churches, were all about conventional wisdom and morality tales of being good, or like the mustard seed they were seen as allegories about the Church. You got their lessons in Sunday School and then were supposed to not need them after that. And we didn’t ever hear much if anything about leaven. But today the parables are seen as the key to Jesus’ message, ministry, mission. These parables about a revolutionary vision of God have themselves gone through a revolution. So much so that for many who write on them today, you can’t deeply understand even the stories of birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus without seeing them as parables about Jesus told in the spirit of the parables he himself told.

The parables show us that before Jesus was considered the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, he first anointed, or Christ-ed the world, especially those parts of it and those people who were treated as objects. And the strangely radical way he did that blessing of the impure and outcast created the climate, the new default mode and re-imagination of God, that then prompted his own followers to see him as a strangely radical, newly imagined Christ, that is a conduit of and to the divine. He showed people the image of God in the image of the poor and powerless, in other words in themselves, in the image of persistent women and foreigners and foreign women, in the image of illegal and wild mustard seed, unholy leaven, emptiness and loss, undisciplined and shamed fathers and sons, employers who upset expectations of workers, and respectable feasts thrown for unrespectable folk. And in living where he did and how he did, as if the world of the parables was the real world, in a time of great scarcity risking all in the spirit of abundance and generosity, he showed the possibilities of the real power that came, as Brandon Scott wrote, from such a re-imagined God. But what kind of sacredness, what kind of God, is that, they asked? And still do. It makes no sense. It won’t work in the world. Caeser’s world, then and now, doesn’t see God or ultimate values of honor and success and justice in those ways. In the parables, Jesus breaks apart the either/or worlds and structured roles and reimagines the world as if Caeser were not in charge. Today, think of the Caesers as affluence, appearance, achievement, addiction, as influence, coolness, consumption, fear, and feelings of scarcity, as if they were not in charge.

Today when I hear the parables of Jesus talk about the kingdom of God I think he would be instead saying here is what God’s Black Friday at the Shopping Malls is really like, or God’s Cyber Monday, here God’s Nielson Ratings, here God’s Gross National Product, here God’s homeland security, here God’s Ph.D., God’s McMansion, and perhaps, most of all, here is what God’s church is like, one that is willing, as the parables call it to do so, to reimagine itself, to get beyond itself, to worry not so much about who is in it and who isn‘t but ultimately Whose it is, one that doesn‘t seek to find a mission but to experience itself as a community formed in response to Mission. The parables challenge us to choose again and again between God and all of our Caesers. No wonder we have through the centuries and cultures found ways to rationalize the parables and hide their message. The hoopla of Church and Holidays can easily distract us from the message instead of feed us with it. Of course ever since the Empire turned Christ into a Caeser, an act that didn’t just happen with Constantine in the fourth century by the way but happens every time the powers that be in all quarters use Christ for their purposes, then the real meaning of the term Christ and Christian is betrayed.

Today, though, in the spirit of the parables, and especially here in the free church, we can turn the tables upside down and the tradition inside out and talk about the kind of King worthy of being called the Christ, one who was himself seen as powerless, roguish, shrewd, criminal, dishonorable, shamed, crucified, a failure, weak, nuisance, a dangerous homeless man who nevertheless was at home wherever he went. And yet just like in his parables, it was this kind of leader, and the ones who followed in his lead, who could change the world by creating community from the ground up, with God’s loving justice and radical inclusion and vulnerabillity, and not from the Empire down with all of the Empire‘s values of the status quo and control. Today, in the twin worlds of fundamentalism and consumerism (including spiritual consumerism) it is the kind of spiritual leadership seen in Jesus that needs to be seen and not kept hidden anymore. Among all its other virtues, this kind of change agent and leader who failed in all the ways of the world is a great antidote for that sin of perfectionism and risk and conflict aversion that so plagues so many of us and our churches.

Well, if for centuries Unitarian and Universalists were the main, if not only, preservers and promoters of the non-creedal radical Jesus, then for the past 63 years the institutional remnant of that particular sanctuary in which we gave shelter and kept alive the revolutionary message of Jesus, has been the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, who first gathered in Boston in December of 1944. Talk about a secret. Our first gathering included some of the most prominent clergy and laity in our movement, and one who would become later the first president of the UUA, and one of our officers for many years was the great UU theologian James Luther Adams. But I was a UU for almost twenty years before I knew about the UUCF, and my story continues to be replicated today. We are as much to blame as anyone for keeping the message of Jesus a secret. UU Christians, and the historic UU Christian churches, should look first to the beam in our own eyes before commenting on the mote in the eye of the UUA. One of my answers to why the UU world has kept the message of Jesus a secret from the wider world for far too long is that we have been too content to think of it as a message, as something for the mind to grasp, as a personal spiritual journey. We are not alone in this; it is a critique for all of the so-called mainstream Christian traditions. But especially we hyper-modernist Enlightenment Era faiths made Jesus and Christianity into an argument full of points and counter-points and focused on our organizations and traditions instead of on the Spirit of the Living God that breaks through all of that to become an organic relationship to be lived, a story to give our hearts and souls and own self stories to, and a path that must be walked with others, particularly others who aren’t like us, or it isn‘t a Jesus kind of path.

Brian McLaren, one of the leaders of the emergent church movement, captures this sentiment well in many of his books, but most succinctly I think in The Secret Message of Jesus where he writes: “Can you see how the secret message of Jesus is meant not just to be heard or read but to be seen in human lives, in radically inclusive reconciling communities, written not on pages in a book but in the lives and hearts of friends? Can you see how the kingdom, originally hidden in parables, began to be hidden in new places--in the stories of real people and real communities across the Roman Empire and eventually around the world? Can you imagine yourself and your community of faith as a living parable where the secret message of Jesus could be hidden today?”

If the original parables of Jesus often left people scratching their heads--God is like what??--and if Unitarian Universalism often does the same today---church is like what?, then the ultimate parable might be in today’s Unitarian Universalist Christianity and our contemporary version of the UUCF. Often other Christians don’t get us; other Uus don’t get us; and, what might surprise a lot of folks, is that we often don’t get each other. This is because we too have grown so diverse since those first years in Boston at the end of the Second World War. We still have in our midst classic Unitarian Christians of the Channing variety, and Emerson and Parker Transcendentalist Christian variety, and still Trinitarian Universalists of the John Murray variety. But we also have UU Christians who follow a humanistic Jesus and don’t call themselves Christians but followers of Jesus, and we have those who follow Jesus in conjunction with their Buddhism or earth-centered faith, and lots of agnostics and atheists who still like to keep up with the latest Jesus and Paul stuff in a familiar setting where their own journeys are respected, and we have Christians who are members of the UUCF but in other traditions who still find connections and resources from us that feed them in ways that their own churches might not, especially for those who are gay, lesbian, bi and transgendered.

When I talk about UU Christianity as a parable, as embodying the radical message of Jesus, I like to talk about the time I worshipped at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, MA where the weekly Lord’s Prayer is recited but where also the time I was there the minister, a Theist but not a Christian, followed the prayer by preaching a sermon on why Atheists were welcome and needed in the church. Or I like to talk about the time a decade ago when the president of the national UU Christian Fellowship was also on the national board of the Covenant of UU Pagans. Believe me, the Jesus of the leaven and mustard seed and empty jar would get it. UU Christianity might once have been commonplace, the two terms considered one and the same at least by their own adherents, and it hasn’t been that long ago that it was, and there are places where it remains so. And it might once have been considered a contradiction, and there are places where it remains so. And it might be to many a conundrum, too difficult a concept to be worth the time and trouble. But for a growing number it is now a place of convergence--where the spiritual sides of one’s life and one’s community can be enriched--the mystical side, the prophetic side, the liberation side, the ritual-seeking worship side, the thinking exploring side, the healing side. Which only seems natural since all those sides show up in Jesus.

Ultimately the message of Jesus isn’t something you can put on a bumper sticker, in a book, or a sermon--it is an experience of changed lives and relationships and communities of love in the face of the experience of life, all the past lessons and all the experts and all that knowledge, that says change and love is impossible. The message of Jesus through the ages down to us is at its heart a calling more than a concept. We are called, in the arcs of our own lives and the practices that mark and shape our communities, to be both imitators within ourselves and initiators outside of ourselves of what Jesus’ parables pointed to as God‘s spirit--the Holy at work in what the world found unholy, the Sacred in what the world called profane, the Ultimate in the ordinary and the finite.

Back in the Saddle

Sorry for the absence of weeks. First there was the focus on Revival 2007 in Cleveland (great success; soon you will be able to order the DVDs if you couldn't make it yourself; keep checking out and then lots of activity family wise and on the ground here with The Living Room Church and our A Third Place Community Center in Turley (go to for a taste) and then Thanksgiving, recent preaching trips, the holidays, and oh yes our recent ice storm of historic proportions and power outages here in Oklahoma. Feels good to begin coming up for air even during these hectic holy days. End.

Your Christmas/New Year Book Gifts for 2007

Give yourself a Christmas present of a book exploring missional incarnational organic relational Christianity and church planting, or for New Years. Excellent way to begin the year. Here are some recaps and new ones for you.

The latest find---Wide Open Spaces: Beyond Paint by Number Christianity, by Jim Palmer, author of Divine Nobodies. I liked this book better and will try to get a chance to do some excerpt. Google it in the meantime and go there yourself. You won't be disappointed. He has a chapter describing the way the chaordic "church" works in his world organically, and the move he made from organizational church to organic church, and it is wonderful. I will be having everyone here exposed to it. Very detailed and full of examples, which many of my favorite books aren't. Strong sense of passion for the next reformation underway.

Don't forget--Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution, Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost's books The Shaping of Things to Come, Exiles, Forgotten Ways, or some already getting classic status like Neal Cole's Organic Church, Gibbs and Bolger's Emerging Church. See posts below for more ideas.

Remember, even if you aren't church planting you can be mission planting, relationship spreading, and that's what these books are really all about. End.