Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Interconnections Story on Us

Here is a link to read the article about us that was in the Unitarian Universalist Association publication for lay leaders called Interconnections. Go to

More Stories From Turley, Part Two

I like to balance the commentary here with some actual reports from the ground. More Stories from Turley, part two:

on Tuesday night we were featured in the news by Tulsa Channel 6 news for our efforts to get people to vote on Election Day yesterday. We live in the area with the worst voter turnout in the County, and that doesn't count those who don't register. We have on a good turnout day about 30 percent of registered voters going to the polls compared to some 67 percent in the south tulsa precincts and in the wealthier suburbs. And in an election like yesterday's the turnout is barely a blip. Lots of reasons for this as we told the TV news people (no access to information, or limited access, means people don't feel they know enough to vote, plus apathy, plus cynicism, etc.) And yet yesterday was national women's rights day celebrating women getting the right to vote, and in our area we also have 66 percent African Americans who have historically been oppressed in voting rights, and so we need to focus on voting responsibilities now. It is a deeply faithful and spiritual matter. It holds up one of our core principles that everyone is a child of God and worthy. The welcome table of Jesus is also part of the government participation process and all need to be encouraged to feast and celebrate. And this includes the many felons in our area; and will be the focus of a project here through our area this Fall heading into November's elections; many people think felons can't vote, but they can if they meet some time requirements. The news crew took a picture of the sign we had out front of A Third Place yesterday--it said on one side, Vote Today Celebrate Democracy, and on the other side it said Thank You Candidates Vote Today. I couldn't find any video posted on the website but if you find it let me know and let them know you appreciate their coverage of our efforts.

Church gathering tonight and each Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m.--ish, the all important "ish" of the organic church; personal spiritual check-ins during conversation; planning for a spiritual retreat; and more....Be thinking of the topics you want to cover, the lectures you want to bring to Turley, this year.

This past Saturday's big event with the Univ. of Okla. was wonderful. About 100 people showed up for free dinner, kids area, a local farmers market, booths and information on Turley volunteer opportunities, chances to sign petitions, and to see a video made about the treasures of the Turley area, plus three bands---gospel, bluegrass, and rhythm and blues. We continue to raise the Spirit around us.

Coming up: Tuesday, September 9, community and public gardening projects, 7 p.m. at the Center. Keeping going with our projects at the school and businesses and the Center and also starting a welcoming bed at O'Brien Recreation Center. Let Turley Bloom.

Saturday, Sept. 13 big day of events. community breakfast at the odd fellow lodge, followed by our random acts of kindness events from 10-noon, followed by volunteer orientation session at the Center, and then that evening at 7 p.m. continuing a monthly free music series for residents in our area. This time featuring Turley resident Johnny Cervantes and his Johnny and the Oklahomans classic country band playing music of Bob Wills Hank Williams and others. If you know of others who would like to be a part of providing this service of spirited entertainment where none exists in our larger area, have them contact me.

We are setting up our A Third Place meetings and deciding those, as well as planning our first A Third Place Volunteer Appreciation Dinner. September will be a watershed month for events that will help us to keep going and growing.

Everyday at the Center lots more going on. We have worked to finish putting the final touches on the health clinic that is now inside in our building, and we have upgraded the free internet center and we continue to expand our free meals with a new additional refrigerator donation, and we have gotten a thank you card from Cherokee school for our help and donations of clothes and more for the children there; continue to bring kleenex, clorox wipes too. More and more people are becoming owners of the Center and keeping it open and helping out one another and all those who happen by or come in. After Labor Day and as it gets a little cooler and people feel like getting out and walking more during the day I think we will see even more come by. And we are looking at possible larger buildings already for possible purchases and renovation to help our area. Stay tuned, or better yet, come by and catch the Spirit.

In all of this, and as we plan ways to continue becoming more a part of the community in order to transform the community, we are freeing the spirits that have lain dormant for so long within us as well as others, and through it all we are simply being the kind of leadership we want to see spring up in others who will begin projects right around their own neighborhoods and in their own churches. This coming second year through church as a community center is going to be full of even bigger dreams, bigger failures, bigger hopes. We are getting ready to get started now to plan a renewal of a community spirit parade in Turley for next September. We have our big Halloween party just around the corner in October.

Leadership is about simply being present with a mission mind-set, living out moment to moment the kind of core values that you wish to see spread to others, and looking for ways to celebrate, connect, celebrate. That's the Jesus way; no fancy programs in it you have to attend, no workshops or classes; become embodied with the spirit of Jesus that everywhere he went good things happened and greater things were even done by others in his spirit after him, as he said. And sometimes, oftentimes, don't forget to just sit back and Enjoy The Show.

blessings, RonType rest of the post here

More Stories From Turley, Part One

I will be sharing some of the details of what has been going on with our intentionally small simple organic church here in Turley this past month. What a movement of the Spirit. Part One:

Tonight (Tuesday, aug. 12) at 7 p.m. we will have a meeting to do some initial planning to get a community garden going in our area, and ways to help others. Let's talk and maybe view some potential sites, and come up with a way to get more people involved on it. The Tulsa Area Community Gardening meeting is a week from today Aug. 19 at 7 p.m. at the kendall whittier library followed by a visit to their garden. Tonight let's also talk about ways we can move forward on having community-owned livestock and lending tools.

Tomorrow Wednesday, Aug. 13, common meal at 6 p.m. followed by a work session as we get things ready for the Giveaway Donation Day this Saturday, deciding what furniture to keep what to giveaway, etc. and work on sign boxes and other ways to promote the Saturday event. Which will be from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Come and meet the community and help us raise funds as we give huge amounts of items away at this back to school time, all for just "best offer." We will end with prayers, candles for joys and concerns, story for all ages, and communion as we live out the radical spirit of Jesus.

We have turned one of our rooms into a permanent room for the University of Oklahoma Health Clinic, and they are very impressed. We have donated an exam table and filing cabinet and Turley volunteers have fixed and replaced lighting and OU folks have painted the room, and it is really looking great for the patients. The OU mobile unit is down and may be for some time, and we have such a need in our area that OU wants to bring the clinic staff to Turley as much as they can and we want to be ready for them and their services, as we seek to cut the disparity in life expectancy in our area; our zip code is 14 years lower than the life expectancy in midtown just 8 miles away.

Turley volunteers have also been working to upgrade and continue improving the Free Internet Center in our place, and it is getting close to a big transformation and we will work on it.

Today the rain is a blessing, for the past few weeks have been full of heat alerts. Our Center has been open almost continually as a shelter for those without electricity. This has helped us become more of a presence in our community, but of course the rising electric costs have really hit us hard. Any special extra donations at this time are greatfully received and all goes into mission, as we are all volunteers and no one is paid.

One of the stereotypes of people in our area is that we are only "takers" and not givers, have no community spirit, because of our poverty and our many problems. One of the missions of our creating the community center was to provide opportunities for people to show this to be untrue, and to show what can happen when you approach people with a spirit of radical trust and hold out community and connectedness as an ultimate value. This summer is really showing how these deeper values can come out in people.

This past Saturday morning three of us painted over graffitti that had been painted with swear words and drug-oriented words on two abandoned houses with broken windows and trash all over the yard and street, right across from our local elementary school playground; this area still needs much attention and work and needs to be on the county health-department watch (because there are still major problems with weeds higher than a house that is abandoned right across the street too). We picked up trash. We also worked on planting more gardens around the school, so when the students came back yesterday they would have something uplifting to look at and not the despairing yards, and we will continue this. This not only affects the 300 students and teachers at the school, but the neighbors around the area as well. It is a shame that what should be a highpoint of the community, the area right around the school for our children, is often in the worst shape. We will work throughout the year with the school and PTA (paying for a pizza meal when the school wants an incentive to help bring parents together) to keep seeing the improvements we have seen the past three years.

One of the catch-words of transformation and sustainability these days, and the organic Christian church movement too, is "co-conspirators." People who conspire together for transformation. Conspire means to "breathe together." We are celebrating one of our co-conspiracies with the OU Social Work and Community Medicine Departments, and with the local Turley area community association and groups, in a Big Free Celebration on Saturday, Aug. 23, at the Center, from 6 p.m. on. Beginning with bluegrass music, ending with rock and blues music, having a presentation by OU about what they have found in Turley and helping with us to promote volunteering in our community through a big volunteer fair and visual presentation. You can show your support by dropping by during this event; sending in money to support it; offering your prayers; as we use it to launch our "organic church" year of hands-on mission. Come meet the disparate, improbable people, the folks all over the theological and political spectrum, the ex-felons, the recovering, the wounded helping the wounded.

And we have been promoting a celebration of democracy. The next election will be Tuesday, Aug. 26. Which is also Women's Rights Day when women got the right to vote. And that night is the next Community Association meeting at 7 p.m. (just as the polls close) at the O'Brien Recreation Center. There is a lot going on with the renewing efforts of the animal support group, and more.

We will be starting a Monday Matinee film group to watch spiritual and socially-justice themed films and documentaries. We are also starting back up our monthly free music coffeehouse with a concert at the Center on Saturday Sept. 13 by Johnny and the Oklahomans, a band with a local Turley flavor, which plays the music of Bob Wills and Hank Williams and more from the 30s through the 50s, classic country.

We continue our food pantry and will be working to expand it.

Our free wifi and internet center helps people of all ages, including the sheriff's office which uses it to send in their reports from our area so they don't have to travel downtown; it is the little things, always, which make a big difference.

Please spread the word about us. We are the leaven in the world, slowly undermining the dominant culture's values of individualism, hyper-commercialism, appearances, achievements and affluence, of cynicism, despair, fear, and a sense of scarcity. We are doing it by becoming "fractal" promoting chaos and self-organizing that comes from that, not fearing ambiguity or things getting complex. We do it through trying to fail, and learn from our failures, because trying to fail means you are trying and risking the impossible. And because it, our openness to failure, opens us up to receiving the good news that through God all things are possible, you just have to get out of your one-year three-year five-year plans and have eyes on the horizon.

Keeping our eyes on the horizon is one of the missions of our Wednesday spiritual gatherings, and of our Sunday morning trips together to worship with Church of the Restoration and others, and of our planned upcoming weekend Spiritual Retreat; come to help us plan and participate in it too.

August is going to be the month when we plant the seeds for the immediate future events, which are planting the seeds for the next 300 years.

What area of leadership would you like to take? What dream would you like to seed? Everywhere we start counts; everywhere we go, good things happen.

blessings, Ron Type rest of the post here

What A time to be who we are, where we are: Three New books: "Rev X" "A Christianity Worth Believing" and "Saving Paradise"

Here are some comments on three new books I read this summer, with a particular slant in this review from my ministry with the UU Christian Fellowship.

What A Time to Be Who We Are, Where We Are

Recently, on our UUCF ministers and seminarians online chat, we have been sharing what it is we especially like and receive benefit from spiritually by being a part of the Unitarian Universalist religious community. (We also talked about what we had to offer others, especially seminarians and lay leaders, about the blessings of being Christian ministers in non-Christian UU churches, and in one case about the blessings of being a non-Christian minister in a UU Christian church; that conversation may inform a later report).

I have had that conversation in the back of my mind as I did some vacation reading this summer that seemed to echo and enrich these sentiments. This seems particularly important for developing our faith as positive and responsive to our cultural conditions today, and not just for thinking of ourselves and defining ourselves as "not like other UUs" or "not like other Christians." That's the same kind of response we often complain about when we experience it in UUs reacting against Jesus and God talk.

First, as we have been re-arranging the UUCF offices, I have taken some time to read through old correspondences from the early days in the 1940s and 1950s and right around the time of the merger in 1961. I have noted time and again the same sorts of correspondence coming in from people then by mail as we get by email and through blogging today--that "there doesn't seem to be a place for me as a Christian in my local UU church" or as a seminarian in the UU movement, along with suggestions that the UUCF consider becoming some sort of independent faith community. As these are decades old situations, it is sad to see them continuing, though I think they are to be found in many Christian communions and are also part of the broader changes in the religious landscape that see so many revolving doors. It may be that for the forseeable future these situations in places may 'always be with us" and, as in Jesus' admonition about the poor, mean we will always have opportunities to respond to the situations with healing and help.

At the same time my reading has focused on the following new books this summer: "Saving Paradise" by Rebecca Ann Parker, president of the UU Starr King School for the Ministry, and Rita Nakashimi Brock, Disciples of Christ minister and social activist; "A Christianity Worth Believing: Hope-filled, open-armed, alive-and-well faith" by Doug Pagitt, emergent Christian pastor of Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis; and "Reverend X: How Generation X ministers are shaping Unitarian Universalism" an anthology edited by Revs. Tamara Lebak and Bret Lortie. Each of these books have left me feeling uplifted about being a follower of Jesus along with Unitarian Universalists these days.

In "Saving Paradise" Parker and Brock trace the history of how Christianity in the first millennium was focused on life and love and anti-Empire practices, keeping the radical Jesus and a transformed Earth as its focus in large measure, but how in the second millennium the Empire struck back (though they point to the many dissidents to this dominant culture, including many Unitarian and particularly Universalist Christians who throughout the second millennium have witnessed to the radical spirit of Jesus and his early followers), and most importantly they lay out a vision of a renewed and reimagined Christianity for the third millennium. I am proud that this book, a part of Christian scholarship (historical, biblical, theological, cultural, and with personal spirituality) has been published by the UU Beacon Press. (See my blog posts elsewhere for more).

Pagitt's book, an example itself of the post-evangelical emergent Christian movement and of many new books like it, is filled with wonderful statements and anecdotes that read as if they could have come from one of our own UUCF gatherings where people give their personal testimonies. "I am a Christian but I don't believe in Christianity." "I am not conflicted because I struggle to believe. I am conflicted because I want to believe differently." Christianity has always been a living faith, one presented in hundreds, even thousands of different ways around the world and throughout the ages. It has always been the dynamic interplay between the Spirit of God and the lives and cultures of people. It is meant to be a real-life journey of discovering, wondering, answering, and questioning." "Whether we know it or not, the dogmas and doctrines that many of us were taught are so firmly embedded in the cultural context of another time that they have become almost meaningless in ours." 'The call of all Christians: to seek, live, and tell the story of God's work in the world, to embrace a faith that is alive and vibrant, untamed and uncaged, right here, right now." He says he was talking with a friend about this "new" understanding of God and Jesus and faith, and she questioned back, 'If Christianity isn't primarily about the promise of an afterlife for those who believe the truth, how would we ever convince someone to be Christian? What do we have to offer?" And he said, "But for me, the idea of following a God who is in all things, who is inviting us to join in the work that is true and noble and pure, is so beautiful and so appealing that I can't imagine why we would offer anything else.'

What I am left with, though, after reading Pagitt's book about his struggles to share his faith is how this message that is so uplifting to him is still such a hard one for so many in the churches that are so clearly labeled as Christian ones to be able to abide much less embrace, and the call to follow Jesus into the places of suffering and oppression is often stymied by the resistance to the very notions expressed, and how blessed I am to be a part of a movement that has had its own struggles from the opposite end of the spectrum, but one where these passions have found a home and a good soil and companions. We have as UU Christians a history to share with the emergent Christian movement, and I hope a shared future in the conversation as we can learn much from them about new communities and church life. (We will have a panel on this at Revival 2009 in Tulsa)

Which brings me finally to one of the emergent generations within UUism and the book "Reverend X" published by the Jenkin Lloyd Jones Press at All Souls in Tulsa. Reading this book and its essays about how younger ministers and younger church members are simply embracing the theological languages and practices, rather than endlessly debating about them, and how this is shaping our movement gives me new hope for how Jesus and Christian practices are becoming a central, if not exclusive certainly, part of many churches and lives among us. It is heartening to see that many of the essays footnoted by these ministers originally appeared in the pages of our UU Christian Journal. Go to to order online the newest Journal as well as back copies.

For example, in his essay about the dangers of misusing the UU Principles and Purposes, the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of All Souls in Tulsa, writes "The weight of biblical influence (religiously, intellectually, historically, and culturally) on the UU tradition and its practices and on the collective UU worldview is heavier than any of the other sources. The general failure of UUs to be honest about the (past and present) influence of Christianity and the Bible on the UU tradition is a self-deception that hinders UUs understanding of themselves, their theologies, and their social location."

He complains that the principles and their use make UUism become lifeless and divorced from real stories of faith and spirit. He writes:

"One reason often cited to explain why Christianity became so effective in co-opting and replacing many pagan religions is that it is more intuitive for people to relate to human narratives like the stories of Jesus and Mary and Joseph than it is to relate to a sacred bull or a holy rock or other abstract deities, icons, or totems. Once the metaphors of religion took names like Peter (instead of an actual rock) and John and Joseph, and these metaphors were described as walking and talking and struggling like the rest of humanity, they developed into a religion that had a powerful appeal: Christianity caught on and spread in part because of its natural correlation to real embodied human experience. In the practice of UUism today, it seems that scripture has become increasingly marginal and has been replaced by a set of words and phrases (the Principles) that have become more and more central. To the degree that this is true, UUs have divorced their religion from a set of common stories that acknowledge the raw, breathing, blistering, bleeding, stinking aspects of human reality. In my experience, when I am weeping for my dead daughter, the image of a soiled Mary on her knees holding her son's lifeless and bloody torso against her body touches the core of my experience; the words "justice and compassion for all people..." are about as inspiring and comforting as a phone book."

It is going to be exciting to be a part of the future with these leaders.

Saving Jesus

The following is a loose report of a sermon preached earlier in August in Houston.

Saving Jesus? Good luck, you might say.

When the UU publisher Beacon Press published the new book Saving Paradise by UU Seminary President Rebecca Parker and Disciples of Christ minister and social activist and author Rita Nakashima Brock, it continued a tradition, a practice, that goes back without ceasing to the beginnings of our faith communities. For in writing Saving Paradise, they are trying to do, what UUs have for centuries done, along with many in other traditions also these days, which is to Save Jesus. Save from what? Well from what Christianity has often become, of course, and from irrelevancy in a world with reigning values of appearance, achievement, and affluence.

Their book lays out how, for the first millennium after Jesus, Christians, on the whole, kept alive his radical spirit that challenged all the destructive powers of the world out of a deep love for the world and for Creation. They point out, for example, how in the first millennium there were no images, that we have found, out of all the images we do have, that show a dead Jesus on the cross. They say it apparently took Jesus, in the imagination of his followers, a thousand years to really die. For the focus of images and faithfulness during those centuries was on new life, a transformed world instead of the death on the cross as some kind of God’s purpose. It’s not that the death on the cross wasn’t vital to the shaping of the faith of the first followers; it clearly was; but the cross image was not the be all and end all, divorced from the act of what God did in the resurrection of the martyred Jewish rabbi as a sign of what would come soon, they thought, in the great righting of wrongs that was to happen to this world in the here and now, a belief that prompted creation of radical egalitarian communities of peace and justice as a mark of what it meant in the first millennium to be Christian.

And then they document the way Christianity, on the whole, in the second millennium after Jesus, betrayed that original spirit and became merged with the interests of the dominant powers of the world through the medieval and modern and Enlightenment eras . They also keep alive though the stories of the minority voices, the dissidents and the heretics, including sometimes the U and U Christians among them, who went against this grain of Empire Church that came to be the kind of normal Christianity so many of us struggle with and against still today.

Finally, Parker and Brock envision, in this dawning of the third millennium after Jesus, another kind of Christianity that reclaims that original revolutionary spirit of Jesus and his early followers and incorporates into it the best of what has come in other sacred ways since then. This is made all the more possible because of the ways the 21st century is echoing the religious pluralism, the drastic changing ways of communication, and the issues against American Empire values that marked the first century in the Roman Empire.

Mostly we have sought in our free church tradition to save Jesus from the sin of creedalism, one of those things that came to mark the second millennium Christianity, especially in its Protestant forms from which our historic communities emerged. Note I said the sin of creedalism, not of creeds. Our argument was not, and is not, so much against this or that creed per se; in fact they may contain much of truth and beauty and goodness within them, especially given the contexts they were created; but we sought to save the ultimate nature of Jesus and of God and of religion from the ultimacy of creeds themselves, the notion that they were the supreme and final touchstone of Christian faith for all time. That’s why the 1800 Unitarian Christians issued pamphlets that asked “are you a Calvinist or a Christian?” Is it in theological talking points, or character, that Christ is mostly manifest? Or as we echo Thomas Jefferson’s “deeds not creeds” marker for Christian faith. And it is why many of us shrink from how things like the Principles and Purposes statement can take on this creedal-like function.

Speaking of creeds in themselves though and how individually they may be found helpful, one of the best parts of Saving Paradise is the discussion about how the forming of the statement about Christ’s divinity, in that infamous Council of Nicea in 325 of the common era, was done as a kind of first millennium slap against the very Emperor who convened the Council, for in highlighting the importance of Christ’s divinity they were continuing the original anti-Empire stance that Jesus, the state-crucified peasant radical rabbi, was Lord, Christ was divine, and not the Emperor, as it was commonly held.

And I have to point out, in fact I enjoy doing so, that even our non-creedal ancestors in the 19th century flirted with creeds, composing affirmations of faith that would give most UUs today the shivers. Such as…….American Unitarian Association statement of 1853 that “WE BELIEVE in Jesus Christ, the everlasting Son of God, the express image of the Father, in whom dwelt all the fullness of the God-head bodily, and who to us is the Way and the Truth and the Life. WE BELIEVE in the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father and the Son, the teacher, renewer, and guide of mankind. WE BELIEVE in the Holy Catholic Church as the body and form of the Holy Spirit, and the presence of Christ in all ages. WE BELIEVE in the Regeneration of the human heart, which, being created upright, but corrupted by sin, is renewed and restored by the power of Christian truth. WE BELIEVE in the constant Atonement whereby God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself. WE BELIEVE in the Resurrection from mortal to immortality, in a future judgment and Eternal Life. WE BELIEVE in the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the final triumph of Christian Truth.

One of the strengths of the free church is that such wording would be found evocative to some among us today, however nuanced in interpretation.

These were from a time when it was commonplace for Unitarians and Universalists to claim Christianity, and of course it is still commonplace in certain places—that’s the beauty, the aggravating beauty, of the free church tradition. We have the churches that make up The Council of Christian Churches within the UUA, and we have the churches where, as they say, the only time you hear the word Christ is when the minister trips down the stairs. You have in our Association churches like Kings Chapel where the creeds still adorn the walls from its founding in 1686 as the first Episcopal church in the U.S., where its motto is still “Anglican in worship, congregational in polity, and Unitarian in theology”. And you have the church where for years our UUCF offices were located, a church founded in 1635, the First Church of Christ, Unitarian, of Lancaster, MA.

And you have as an emerging church my church plant in Oklahoma where we have a cross in our building too, and we have weekly communion, but since we are native to our place and our time of founding, the UU Christians of New England might not recognize us—we put the low in low church, we meet in the mission community center we created and worship right as the Center is open and busy around us, always having a common meal, conversation, and then candles and prayers and communion passed around by our children, and singing Shalom Havyreem and Go Now in Peace at the end while people are browsing the library or using the free internet or giveaway room and sometimes joining in with us. No, just like UUism in some historic churches of New England or the South wouldn’t be recognizable to many UUs, neither would we to some of our fellow UU Christians. And I like to say that when the UUCF offices were moved from MA to OK that it caused people around here to say “UU what?” and it caused folks back there to say “UUCF where?”
There was also a time, and there are certain places today, where it was not commonplace but a contradiction to be a UU Christian; and in my 30 plus years as a UU, all of it in our area, it has been more of a conundrum, a kind of parable; and most recently, I ‘d say the word that marks UU Christianity, perhaps UUism itself and Christianity itself too, is convergence. There is not one prevailing type anymore within UU Christianity, and there are those who converge their spiritual paths, Buddhist-Christian, Pagan-Christian, Humanist-Christian (once our UUCF president was also on the national board of the Covenant of UU Pagans), and there are those who join with us but also are in other faith communities (we say you don’t have to be Christian to be in the UUCF, and you don’t have to be UU either; that Jesus would have it no other way), and there are many many more links and labels, as well as those who are among us and simply call themselves UU, or just Christian, or resist the urge period. One of my mentors and former ministers in Tulsa, John Wolf of All Souls, used to preach piggy-backed sermons; as a frequent guest preacher I envy that luxury; he would preach once on Why I Am A Christian and then the next Sunday on Why I Am Not A Christian, and on Why I Am a Unitarian, and the next Sunday on Why I Am Not A Unitarian. Among his reasons against claiming Unitarians was our constant seeking after statistics and labels to demonstrate who we were—how many of this and how many of that—trying to fill up with them a spiritual emptiness of the soul.
So UUism is much changed and changing still; that we can sometimes handle, but it’s tougher at times, particularly if we have come from an explicit Christian background, to grasp how Christianity is much changed and changing still; and so of course are also we who stand in both worlds of UUism and Christianity. When we stake our authority in ongoing revelation, there’s no telling where you will end up, for you might even circle around again and as T. S. Eliot wrote know your place of beginning for the first time. The founders of the UUCF in 1945 might be perplexed, perhaps irked, perhaps pleased, to see us today, especially at one of our national Revivals as we have been holding since 1999 in New Orleans and will again this coming March in Tulsa at All Souls. We are still committed to saving Jesus from dogmatism or irrelevance, but the reasons and the ways we go about it are much different. The talk I hear more and more is about we, free thinkers, free followers, are committed to saving Jesus because we have experienced Jesus saving us, truly, deeply, madly. Not saving us from the eternity of punishment, not saving us by prompting us to say a certain prayer and agreeing to a set of mental propositions, but saving us nonetheless.
In the fairly recent book from Skinner House, C hristian Voices in UUism, there is some of this through the words of the Rev. Victoria Weinstein, who wrote:
Who is Jesus Christ to me? He is both a teacher of the Way, and the Way itself. For one who has always had a hard time grasping the concept of God, let alone developing a working definition of God, Jesus both points me toward a definition of God and then lives that definition. Jesus Christ is the freedom that laughs uproariously at the things of this world, while loving me dearly for being human enough to lust after them. He is my soul’s safety from all harm. He is the avatar of aloneness, a compassionate and unsentimental narrator of the soul’s exile on earth, and proof of the soul’s triumphant homecoming at the end of the incarnational struggle. He is not afraid to put his hands anywhere to affect healing. He mourns, and weeps, and scolds, and invites. He is life more abundant and conqueror of the existential condition of fear.”

For me it was sitting in hospitals with a young daughter and picking up the Bible, literally seeking an escape from the uncertainties that had become routine there, and scanning the Psalms and being drawn in to the poetry of suffering and survival of a people as a people, not as individuals; and then later going to a weekend seminar on the parables of Jesus put on by Hope Unitarian church in Tulsa, and being blown away by the power of Jesus’ parables that, as one Jesus Seminar scholar puts it, reveals a God who has “changed sides” and is experienced now with the poor, the prisoner, the sick, the wild, status-quo breaking, unholy, empty, shamed, hungry folks of the world—I recognized my story in his story, my community in his, and my calling, and seminary and all the rest have followed, particularly my commitment on where I live and how and with whom my neighbors are and where and how church is done, in the poorest section of the Tulsa area, just eight miles straight down the same road from All Souls, but where the life expectancy in our zipcode is 14 years lower, where for thousands of people around us there is nothing much for the youth but gangs—no pizza delivery, no movie theaters, no safe commercial gathering spots, and for the aging you can’t find volunteers for meals on wheels drivers or for hospice, and up to now little advanced health services, a weak public transportation system and no grocery stores for many for miles, not to mention, and most don’t, the schools (just yesterday morning a group of us from church were out before sunup and the heat painting over graffiti on abandoned houses with broken windows and trash-strewn yards right across from the local elementary school so the children who start there tomorrow won’t have to walk past it; instead they will walk past the gardens of native wildflowers we plant at the school. Jesus calls me to all this in order to save myself, and I like to think it is a small part of saving him in today’s world.
For us, the church’s mission is simple: to make Jesus visible in the world. That’s why we do what we do and how we keep trying to save Jesus, because Lord knows, I still struggle to be faithful to his spirit, and am the most prodigal of sons at times, and I catch myself tossing around the name Christian so loosely that when I stop and think about it it scares me, for it is always something I am more striving to be than having achieved. And I know, whether UU or not, Christian churches are sometimes the last place and people that actually seek to make Jesus visible in the world. Instead we are apt to hide him behind respectability or tradition. But as in our story this morning about his encounter with the Syrio-Phoenician woman, Jesus himself, I know, from his own experience, would understand our struggles. As he would understand our kind of inclusive convergent faith tradition seeking to keep that welcome table open for all.
We seek to save Jesus still because still in ways people might not understand he still saves us, his story still our saving story, the practices of community he began ones that shape and save us still, whether we are in a UU church of whatever theological orientation, or a UU Christian small group or covenant group in our church or area, two or three gathered together, really two or three, seeking together to freely follow his Way. And wherever two or three are gathered, no matter how they describe their theology, who are seeking to make his spirit visible in the world.
I close with a story by Parker and Brock, but from their earlier book, Proverbs of Ashes. In it they write of struggling against the church and particularly the practice of communion because it had been portrayed as an act of exclusion, reflecting a medieval theology that sanctioned violence and abuse in the name of sacrifice, and for those abused it seemed to perpetuate it. But then the deepest healing also happened through the act of communion too (just as I tell those in the UUCF that one of our missions is to be healing agents in the name of Jesus for those who have been abused in the name of Jesus). Parker writes of having been in a small group with a man who had abused his children, who was learning to tell the truth about his life, as she was about the abuse suffered in her own, how at first she wanted to flee from the group and the memories, but then she writes:
“I remembered that he and I were there for the same reason. We were trying to recover from living a lie, we were there for each other, all of us in the group, and we told the truth about our lives because telling the truth restored us to the human community. It brought us back from the dead. It was a way of showing up. Of coming back, alive. It made us free. Not long after that meeting, I was at a worship service. Communion was to be observed. I was preparing to make a quiet exit during one of the hymns, but decided to stay. I knew the worship leader and trusted her. We were sitting in the round in a small chapel. We could see one another’s faces in the candle light. Words were spoken that told of Jesus’ crucifixion. It was a narrative of lamentation and grief, not praise and thanksgiving. Prayers were offered for victims of violence and abuse, all those who suffer in mind, body, and spirit. Then bread and wine were offered to any who wished, as a sign that there is nourishment for the suffering, comfort for the grieving, and hope that someday all people will gather at one table in peace.
My consciousness slipped into another realm. I felt the presence of Frank (her abuser). I could see him in the circle across from me. The bread and cup were passed to him. He ate and drank. Then the elements came to me. I ate the bread and drank from the cup. Somewhere deep inside me a noise that had been roaring for years became silent. An old ache, like a stone, began to fall. I returned to normal consciousness. Around me were the quiet voices of familiar friends. I knew that in the end, all there is, is mercy. The promise was true. Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning. “
So it is that saving Jesus saves us so we may help save others. May it be so in your life whatever your guide, your God.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Church of the Perfect Storm

Leonard Sweet's new book of essays by church leaders is called "The Church of the Perfect Storm." Good if you are trying to reveal to church folks why there is so much storming going on in your churches, in communities, lives, etc. My favorite essay though was by Bill Easum--his are "mid-storm equations for ministry" to help do God's work in the midst of the storm, not just trying to ride it out.

1. Fractals are the guiding principle of mathematics in the emerging world (and so should be in your church in this world). How complex is your church? If you put it under a microscope you should see its complexity growing; of course this is natural with organic missions; it is impossible with a focus on organizational stuff. In how many ways, and they will vary, is your church existing in multiple forms?

2. He sees five major forms of church life emerging in the foreseeable future.
First, islands of strength within mainline denominations. (I think we see that happening; and the covenant or learning between those islands of strength and health should be focused on rather than through geographical covenants with churches with different mission even if they are in your own association and in your own city).
Second, numerous forms of marketplace congregations that have no institutional form whatsoever.
Thirdly, smaller, less institutionaly based, emergent churches that is ancient/future in practice.
Fourthly, the house church, and it becoming more organized than before.
Fifthly, continuation of high-committment, disciple-making, culturally indigenous megacongregations.

I think if the DNA of mission vision values is consistent between these five major forms, as I think it can be, that you can even mix and match and partner up some of these forms, such as islands of health among mainline partnering with and helping form house church networks.

Multiplication, not addition, is the norm. You will be judged by how much chaos you have going on in your church, and that's a good thing to have, because people with healthy DNA and desire to be culture agents will "self-organize for ministry" in the midst of the most chaos. Everything will depend on leadership formation then, and that will become the focus.

As before, Easum casts warning signs for churches that seek to let their democratic polity be their rudder during the storm. Churches based on congregational democracy or representative democracy (elected bishops, etc.) were formed in the heights of modernity; they tend to lose out to more apostolic forms birthed in pomo times. Congregational churches will thrive to the extent they learn how to circumvent as much of their governance as possible, he says.

If everything depends on cultivating the leader who will lead the self-organizing ministry in the chaos, then the purpose of the church as putting and cultivating these leaders in mission in the world, and not within the functions of the institutional church, is how leaders will be grown. We won't talk of "religious leaders" but of "spiritual guides."

Ministers will learn the best thing to do as ministers is "you are the curriculum. Just let them hang out with you." Hang out with leaders on the mission field, which is where Jesus would be, getting hands and hearts dirty, and hanging out doesnt cost anything, he says, unlike programs and curriculums.

Pray more and plan less. Get rid as much as possible with anything having to do with "annual." It prevents how fast you can change. Get rid of annual budgets, annual meetings. Think about budgets in daily, monthly, or quarterly forms or better yet quit thinking about them at all and think instead about "liquid pools of money from which any one of the core ministries can draw."

All possible with a clearly defined DNA, and focus on leaders who embody it, and then not worrying about the rest. Is it corny in this sense to say you can then, let go and let God.

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What If aliens....

This excerpt from Neil Cole's book "Search and Rescue" (see below) is too good and needs its own space....It is a great ice-breaker or opener for church board retreats or meetings that are going on in August.

"If aliens came and abducted all of the truck drivers at once in our country, our whole economy would soon unravel. You probably give little thought on a daily basis to truck drivers, except for the annoyance of having to get around a slow moving semi on the highway. But if they were suddenly gone, stores would close due to a lack of merchandise. People would lose jobs. Prices for the goods that in stock would triple. Families would soon go hungry because stores would not be able to stock their shelves. The influence of truck drivers on our life every day is very real, even if we don't give it much thought [Ron note: like the leaven in Jesus' parable, for example]. If suddenly all the garbage collection trucks broke down, everyone in town would soon know it. If all waiters and waitresses were suddenly sick and unable to work, many of us would go hungry. If teachers couldn't work, we would have a crisis on our hands.

"But if all the churches in your community suddenly disappeared, would the average person in your town even notice? If just your church closed its doors for good, would the people who live within a fifteen-mile radius even know about it?"

In the post below I criticize the tendency of Cole's books to focus on personal holiness to the detriment of the social self and social sins; I do that in part because I am also one of those frequent critics of liberal religious bodies penchant for "make-good" resolutions on this and that social ills and study issues, the flip side of the coin. But here in this section of the quote above, I want to give Cole credit for a wonderful example of how the smallness of the life transformation groups as being "kingdom-oriented" and the focus on the person in the group can have a social transformative effect.

Instead of pulpits preaching about social ills, instead of resolutions that take time and money and talent, all those things that probably make little difference and lead to the church's irrelevancy to most within 15 miles of it, what if, he wonders, LTGs helped bring back responsibility into the lives of men (and the women only groups would help I am sure with this through reducing enabling behaviors). He writes, "If the hearts of the fathers returned to their children, and if fathers were faithful to their chilren's mothers, street violence would subside, drug and sexual abuse would decrease, theft would drop, schools would improve, illiteracy would decrease, and dependency on the state's welfare system would diminish--releasing more tax revenue to address other problems. Sexually transmitted diseases would die down quickly. Unwanted teen pregnancy rates would drop significantly. The AIDS crisis would end. The abortion issue, one of the most divisive issues of our day, would be resolved, not because of political lobbying and picket signs, but because the hearts of fathers would be turned back to their children." And he uses the example of how Great Britain ended slavery not by a war but by the revival of God's people in a slow, struggling way. And so he says all of our issues where Jesus is calling us to be, such as environmental issues, poverty issues, genocide, terrorists are not too much for us because we are a part of the movement of the "kingdom" of God, and that always works in small ways. He closes with a paraphrase of Ghandi's be the change you seek to see in the world. Whatever form church takes for you, that needs to be its goal, and if it isn't working for you or your neighbors, then consider finding a different form. (see the post below).

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Questions for Life Transformation and Organic Churches

Neil Cole, author of The Organic Church among others, has a new book out called "Search and Rescue: Becoming a Disciple Who Makes A Difference". You might know that he is at Church Multiplication Associates and has been for years promoting organic churches of 8 to 16 people based on groups of 2 to three people in "life transformation groups." He has a lot of wonderful stories in this latest book, based on metaphors gleaned from years of being a lifeguard, and I will try to post some in the future, but now I want to focus on the practical tips at the end of the book as resources for people seeking to start small groups of Christians or Jesus-seekers, followers, etc.

First, the summary: the groups, and they can go by various names, meet once a week for approximately an hour. Two or three only, with the fourth person coming in as the start of the next group). For him, the groups are not coed (I can see those advantages, the same as having traditional women's and men's ministries in organizational churches; but for my purposes here I don't think they have to start out that way, but as your groups multiply you can have some that are that way, and I think a lot will become that way organically, but then I'm a liberal; I do think there are advantages to trying to go with same-sex groups); there is no curriculum, workbook or training required; there is no leader needed in the group; only three tasks are to be accomplished: sin is confessed to one another in mutual accountability, scripture is read repetitively in entire context and in community, souls are prayed for strategically, specifically and continuously.

In the book he provides a series of different questions that have been asked as part of small groups from John Wesley on up to various ways people are adapting the Life Transformation Groups. Let me repeat again my belief in the generalization that liberals tend to not be comfortable confessing personal sins, and conservatives tend to not be comfortable confessing, or even knowing, about their involvement in social sins. His book again focuses too heavily on personal holiness for my taste, not because that is not important, since it is important for liberals who have ignored it often in public discourse, but because the questions don't tend to allow for the social self to be explored and while the whole point of the organic church and LTGs is to stress community over individualism, the questions as mostly prompted to be asked seem focused on the individual.

But there is one set of questions offered in the book that I really like and can use. They come from Phil Helfer, pastor of Los Altos Brethren Church in Long Beach, CA. Here are the questions to be asked each week of one another:

1. How have you experienced God in your life this week?
2. What is God teaching you?
3. How are you responding to his prompting?
4. What sin do you need to confess?
5. How did you do with your reading this week?
(I like these because they can easily incorporate the social self)
Often there is a variation of another question focused on how you have shared God with others this week. LTGs, as Cole points out, are different in focus from accountability groups because they are designed to multiply as participants tell others about their life and its changes.

In many ways these are spiritual direction questions and spiritual direction styled groups, but in a prophethood and priesthood of all believers sort of way in community rather than focused only one one individual. I think they tap into that deep longing that the rise of spiritual direction has done also.

The questions he even boils down to two simple ones to encounter and share with one another week after week: 1. What is God telling you to do? What are you going to do about it?

This section of the book also raises and responds to the common objections to LTGs---they can't be controlled, they are too personal especially for newcomers, they require too much bible reading, they open up to heresy, and they are an attempt at "sin management."

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Enough Is Enough

I am beholden to my wife for the latest best way to signal to others the shorthand answer about the nature of our organic church. First, I never, of course, get questions like "what is the nature or purpose of your church?" It is telling that over and over (though this is mostly from Boomers and older) we get as the first question, "how many members do you have?" Sometimes we get "how is your church doing" and when I respond by saying great and rattling off a list of what we've set in motion, the next question is about the numbers of members. In the past I, in my "abstractitutde" often talk about how we don't focus on members, but on leaders, partners, and participants and then make the current stab at the number of each. But I like her reply better. She says "Enough." Enough to start and run a community center, library, free internet center, giveaway room, partner with a health clinic, plant community gardens, hold free concerts, run community forums, offer free meals, and lately cool shelter from the heat alert, and have our gatherings for worship (common meal, conversation, communion and prayers and candles) once a week and often worship with others another time during the week.

If pressed about how many is "enough" to do all that, I'd say twelve, overall, if we could ever get all 12 together at one time. If they marvel that a handful could do all that, all unpaid, then I get a chance to talk about being primarily an incarnational organic instead of an attractional organized church. Then the eyes either glaze over or light up.

In Shane Claiborne's book Jesus For President (see posts somewhere below) he talks about the need to teach children that the question is not 'what do you want to be when you grow up?" but "what kind of X, Y, or Z do you want to be when you grow up?". It is not how many members do you have; it is what kind of members do you have, and about creating a culture that turns them loose on the world.

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