Friday, May 29, 2009

Keep the Faith, Baby!

Keep the Faith. Being faithful. Having faith in someone, in something. "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1) Faith is being sure.

During my upbringing, I didn't think about faith. It was just there. I had Faith, according to my teachers, because I believed in God and in Eternal Salvation. I was set. I had Faith as in: "The theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God's will." (American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd Ed., 1996) Faith in that sense didn't have anything to do with what was happening on Earth. And nothing on Earth was as certain as God and Salvation, so it was better that I didn't have faith in anything or anyone in my life.

The American Heritage Dictionary also defines faith as a "confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, an idea or thing." and as "Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence." A synonym of faith is Trust. "Firm reliance on the integrity, ability or character of a person or thing." So you have a confident belief in someone's trustworthiness and then you rely on him. Faith and Trust go hand in hand.

In a sermon I heard last year, the minister encouraged us to define our own faith through questions. When the chips are down and life is throwing lemons, what do you rely on to pull you through? To what or to whom do you turn to support you through the tough times? Answering instinctively, from the gut, uncovers some interesting answers.

I have faith in my own abilities to see me through. My intellect, my judgment, my knowledge. At the same time, I am convinced that, although I might have cultivated these abilities, I received them, and any talents I possess, as gifts from God the Creator.

I also have faith in the Interdependent Web, the Life System, the Exquisite Timing, in God within whom we live and move and have our being. I have a confident belief that this Web aligns itself with Good, moves toward the positive, desires the Kingdom of God here, in our existence. I have faith that when I have a problem, other people and circumstances will align to help me toward an ultimately good outcome--not necessarily at the immediate time or for me personally, but for the Life System, the Web as a whole.

Part of any Leap of Faith is to be aware of how that alignment may be happening around me--dynamically--and deliberately step into the flow.

Recognizing and moving in the correct flow, following my Bliss, seeking courage and goodness, living in love and compassion, listening to my spiritual teachers and scripture. I have faith in this life Path. I trust that if I follow this Path, I will, with God, create positive ripples around me and in the world.

When the chips are down and life is throwing lemons, what do you rely on to pull you through? To what or to whom do you turn to support you through the tough times?

Quick! What's your answer?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Exquisite Timing

I've heard this phrase used a lot in the world, referring to a deliberate or chance occurrence dropping into life at just the right moment to make a difference, to avoid calamity. The appearance of a book on store shelves was planned with exquisite timing to take advantage of current events. Or a ball player's addition to a team came with exquisite timing to secure his team's place in the finals. There's even a race horse named Exquisite Timing. Don't know if the horse lived up to its name, but I'm sure the owners hoped that it would.

Fred Campbell, in his book Religious Integrity for Everyone: Functional Theology for Secular Society, describes Exquisite Timing as that experience we all have when events and lives and nature all converge in one point in time to create some extraordinary, inexplicable outcome. Theist that I am, I call these "God Moments".

When I was caring for my mother some years back, I was told that she had normal pressure hydrocephalus, a build-up of spinal fluid in her brain that was causing Alzheimer's-like symptoms. The possible cure would be the placement of a brain shunt to drain the fluid from her brain into her stomach cavity. She was safe in the hospital for now, but I was to decide on the procedure over a few days, days in which I was scheduled for a business trip in another city. I boarded the plane and pulled out my journal articles describing the shunt procedure. A pleasant-looking man took his seat beside me, glanced at what I was reading and asked, "Who needs a shunt?" I learned in short order that he was a neurosurgeon on his way to a conference. He had performed many of these procedures and was more than willing to explain and answer questions during our flight. God Moment. Exquisite Timing.

A young girl from a small Midwest town goes to New York City for the first time in her life to celebrate the New Year. In the crowd, she and her friends meet a young soldier soon to be shipped out and share a meal with him and his buddies. He will become the love of her life. (Yes, happened during World War II). God Moment. Exquisite Timing.

Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent! God Moment. Exquisite Timing.

I know you've experienced this. The Life System that God created, the intricate ripples that we all cause as we move through Life's Web, the interconnections of all living things--there's enough possibilities there to keep the God Moments coming.

Keep your soul poised for Exquisite Timing. When a God Moment happens, revel in it. See how awesome God can be.

Blessings on your day!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Define "Christian", Please

As I've shared my emerging knowledge of myself as a UU Christian, and my growing belief that "redemption through Jesus' death" is not primary in my personal theology, friends and relatives have posed the question, "Then how can you call yourself a Christian?"

Pause... Exactly the question I've asked myself. Because deep in my gut, I see myself as a Christian, but I don't fit the definition. But then, I've heard quite a few definitions. There are usually three requirements in most definitions, but sometimes not. (This is sounding more Unitarian Universalist all the time!)

Definition 1: A Christian believes that:
  • God exists.
  • The Bible is the Word of God.
  • Jesus was equally human and divine; Jesus was God.
  • Humanity's sins were redeemed through the sacrifice of the cross.

I've heard and read this definition in various forms all my life. This is what I call a "mainstream" definition, but even within that framework there is a spectrum of religious diversity that rivals rainbow colors. What concept of God? Literal or non-literal biblical interpretation. What's the emphasis on--humanity or divinity? Who was redeemed? What are the requirements? Is there a Trinity involved?

Definition 2: Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, HarperCollins, 2003. pg. 37-8. Borg contends that there are three affirmations central to Christian faith. A Christian...

  • Affirms the reality of God.
  • Affirms the utter centrality of Jesus.
  • Affirms the centrality of the Bible.

Lots of wiggle room here, too. This list doesn't define what to believe about each of the affirmations. Borg is showing us that we, as Christians, have this core in common. Common ground on which to begin conversations and from which to build a vision of what life on this Earth should look like.

Definition 3: "Christian", The American Heritiage Dictionary. 3rd Ed. 1996.

n. 1. One who professes belief in Jesus as Christ or follows the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus. 2. One who lives according to the teachings of Jesus.

Well, this is interesting. Notice that #1 says "...follows THE religion...", not A religion or ONE of the religions or one of the denominations. THE religion. Christianity. And a Christian can profess belief OR follow the religion--nothing in this second part about beliefs--"...based on the life and teachings of Jesus." [Emphasis mine. not about Jesus. Hm-m-m.]

Then there's #2. "One who lives according to the teachings of Jesus." This is the one that matches the tag lines of the UUCF: "Simply Following Jesus" and "Following Jesus in Freedom". In the UUCF, I've met several people who state firmly that they do not believe in the reality of God or a god. That kind of threw me. I mean, Jesus believed in God. No question of that. So how can you follow him and not believe in God? Hm-m-m.

Then I attended Revival and considered what I know of my own Christian fellowship. Here are people who don't accept the reality of God, but are striving to live with the teachings of Jesus engraved on their hearts. With love and compassion. Works for me. The last dictionary definition is the most inclusive and lies within the framework of the Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles. What does your belief lead you to do? What does your faith look like?

"But as for me (Joshua 24:15)...", I'm a Definition 2 kind of girl. I feel the presence of God a lot in my life, so God is real. Jesus is my central teacher, and I'm always tuned to new ways of understanding how his teachings can guide me. I was raised with the Bible, so it's central. I can't often quote chapter and verse, but I have a few passages under my belt and a strong sense of the parables and reminders of God's encompassing love.

Are you a Christian?

I've added a few books to the LTS Amazon bookstore (link on the left), including Marcus Borg's Heart of Christianity. Take a look. Share with us what books or DVD's have influenced your journey as a Christian.

Blessings on your day!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Cross

A phrase that I learned at the 2009 Revival was "cross cringe". That's the reaction that we UU Christians sometimes elicit if we wear a cross or state that we are Christians in the company of our UU brothers and sisters. It's that little wrinkle of the nose, a start of surprise, a widening of the eyes, perhaps a soft "Oh." The cross cringe may be as overt as a suggestion that maybe we would be more comfortable at the local Lutheran church. I have seen the cringe from others outside the UU faith. In our society, the word "Christian" is most often associated with a literal reading of the Bible and a legalistic, judgmental religion. In that context, hearing the word "Christian" can move someone to shout "Hallelujah!"; others to respond with "the cringe".

In light of that, I was delighted that Rev. Tamara Lebak of All Souls Unitarian chose for her Sunday sermon the topic, "The Signs of the Cross". She said that it was in honor of the UUCF Revival visitors as well as her own deep fascination with this ancient symbol. Her own collection of crosses fills several packing boxes. And she grinned when she said that it was not often that the All Souls congregation heard the hymn "The Old Rugged Cross" which was sung so beautifully by the choir that morning.

She spoke of Greek crosses, with equal arms, that in 9500 BCE symbolized the horizon and the rising and setting of the sun. Four thousand years before the Third Reich, the swastika cross was used to denote the four directions (North, East, South, and West) and the world-wheel (the eternally changing world, around a fixed, unchanging center or god). The cross can symbolize the meeting of opposites, the merging of human and divine, immenence and transcendence. The Latin cross, the one associated with today's cross cringe, was carved into Bronze Age stones, was used as a ward against evil. It is a rich symbol, and even more powerful, Rev. Lebak said, because it rejects duality. It has so many meanings from so many different times, cultures and traditions, that it helps us to reflect on the Truth. Truth that can only be discerned by drawing all those diverse meanings together. Only then might we sense something of the grandeur and variety of life.

Read Rev. Lebak's sermon; there's also a podcast version out on the All Souls website. It will open your eyes to that "old rugged cross" and make you appreciate all over again that simple symbol. It's got me wearing my cross again, ready to face the "cross cringe".

How about you?

Today's post is the last relating my experiences at the UUCF 2009 Revival in Tulsa, OK. Next time I'll be walking down from the mountaintop and into everyday Christian life. Looking forward to meeting you there!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Communion, Community

I'd like to remind you all that the 2009 Revival DVDs are now available through the UUCF Bookstore. Experience the Opening Worship and "useful righteousness" and the Keynote Worship featuring Bishop Carlton Pearson's Words of Life sermon. Watch for your own reflection. Share with your small group. Each DVD can be purchased for $15, shipping included, or you can order both for just $25. Buy multiple sets at the discount price of $20 a set. Such a deal!

Sharing the DVDs in your small group is a way to foster community and to extend the spiritual connection with UU Christians all over the world. One of the purposes of the UUCF Revival--and the UUCF--is to help build connections among us and to remind us that we are not alone. There are others who catch the spirit of Jesus as we do and who find God in many wonderous ways. At Revival, we regularly heard and experienced suggestions and ideas that we could integrate into our home fellowship groups.

Early Saturday evening, we joined in a Communion Service, led by Rev. Lillie Mae Henley. I have always been taught that the Communion service is a meal, commemorating the Passover meal on Holy Thursday that Jesus shared with his friends. If you look through the Gospels, you'll also notice that Jesus does a lot of eating and drinking with friends...and strangers and the curious and the outcast. I love that image of gathering around a table (even if it's an elegant altar and not my beat-up kitchen table) and reconnecting. Rev. Henley's sermon was touching and heartbreaking at the same time for she gave us the life of Jesus from his mother's perspective in Mary's own voice. And Mary had a mother's story to tell. Of her hopes and dreams for her son, of her confusion over his choices, of her deep sorrow at his death. The sermon reminded me that we share life around those dinner tables and breakfast tables. We create our communities at our meals, our picnics, our tailgate parties, our communion services. Take a look at the Communion Service on the UUCF Revival website. Use it, adapt it to bring communion to your own small group.

Later that Saturday night, those of us who had not yet traveled home gathered at a Tulsa restaurant called The Local Table. This was the day of the spring snow storm, and we drove through 6-inch slush to reach the restaurant. Most businesses in town had closed because of the storm, and the owners were delighted that we had not cancelled our reservation. Being a restaurant that uses locally grown food, they were looking forward to our large group. We found seats for 25 of us in a small room with the feeling of a darkened, cozy study with sleek furniture. Space was a little tight, but the conversation and energy flowed around the room and strengthened our bonds. Excellent food, excellent company. Communion.

The last official Revival gathering was the Closing Circle, led by Rev. Suzanne Meyer. At this traditional Revival ceremony, we formed a large circle to pray for safe journeys and to lift up special intentions and our home churches. One-by-one, we shared two things. The first was what we would take with us from the weekend, what would we remember, what would "keep us going".

The second was unexpectedly powerful to me. That was to simply state where we were traveling that day. This was the first time throughout the entire weekend that I grasped the geographic scope of the Revival participants. People had come from every corner and area of the US and from Canada. Though we are many, we are one body. Communion.

Where do you experience Communion in your life? In the past month, when did you experience the most tangible sense of connection, of community?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Do You Wish To Be Healed?

Heal verb 1. To make or become well or healthy again. 2. to cure (a disease) or mend, as a wound. Webster's New World Compact School and Office Dictonary, 1982.

On Friday evening of Revival, after a full day of services, workshops, singing, eating, gathering and talking, time came for a centering, for that inner work that helps us notice what's going on deep in our souls. We were given that gift of time at the prayer and healing service.

Scripture and songs and prayer led us to the core of the service. Instead of giving us a dictionary definition, Rev. Jonalu Johnstone prepared the way by explaining that "healing" means adjusting to a violent or wrenching change of circumstance. To heal means to adjust. And how do you know you're still healing? Because of a continued sense of dis-ease. The current of hurting, anger, tears, sadness, and distress, that rolls above and below the surface of our lives as we adjust to the new circumstance.

Do you wish to be healed?

Can you drag your ego, your self-righteousness, your pride out of the way so that God can pour in and heal?

Do you really wish to be healed?

Or does your "dis-ease" serve you in some way? Do you enjoy the distress because it makes you feel alive, worthy, right?

Do you really wish to be healed?

What are you willing to give up, throw out, die to, change to create the space you need to heal the dis-ease?

Once we were given a chance to examine our answers to these questions, we were invited to come to one of four ministers at the front of the chapel and quietly state our dis-ease, our trouble, our wrenching circumstance. And receive the gift of healing prayer.

There are few things as powerful as walking to someone to whom you know you can trust your soul and saying out loud the thing that's eating away at you, corroding your spirit. Kneeling or standing with that person as your spiritual partner. To have that partner, in empathy and compassion, lay hands on you, on your shoulders or head, with gentle, warm pressure. Then to hear the soft, fervent prayers wash over you. For your adjustment. For your healing. Believe me, the Holy Spirit is all over that.

Just a week after I returned from Revival, the minister's pastoral prayer at my own church asked that we not only pray for our own healing, but also look around and each day perform some small act of healing, of kindness, of compassion for someone else.

What adjustment are you struggling with today? Is there anything keeping you from giving up your dis-ease and opening up healing space?

May you take steps each day--either baby steps or long strides--toward spiritual health and wholeness. May it be so. Amen.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Deliver Us Through Water

In the liturgical year, we are still in the Easter Season, a time to acknowledge and take notice of the presence of God's bounty all around us. Easter also is a time of renewal and in many churches, Easter Sunday is the day when Christians are baptized or renew their baptismal vows. Since baptism is an ancient ritual in Christianity, there was no surprise that we should celebrate baptism at the UUCF Revival.

I was baptized as an infant in the Roman Catholic Church, and I always felt a little cheated. The choice had been made for me. When I was old enough to actually understand what baptism meant and could embrace it, I was told that baptism was only needed once and I couldn't be baptized again. In the Catholic tradition, the alternative for older people is Confirmation, an adult's commitment to Christ. Infant baptism is considered by some theologians to be equivalent to Jewish circumcision and so continues the line of tradition from Old Testament times (see "A Brief History of Christian Baptism: from John the Baptist to John Smythe"). The use of water for ceremonial purification and ritual cleansing was known in many ancient pagan cultures as well as Hebrew ritual (see "Baptism: A Pre-Christian History"). I was curious to see how baptism played out in a Unitarian Universalist context.

The service itself (pg. 20 of the Revival Worship Booklet) was of the same form that I remembered from my nieces' and nephews' christenings--scripture readings of the baptism of Jesus, hymns, a prayer of confession to prepare, the blessing of water. There were many references to the Bible stories which tell of God's deliverance through water: Noah's ark, the parting of the Red Sea, the baptism of John, the springs of living water of the Spirit.

Two things stood out for me at that service. The first was the baptism of a fellow Christian "...In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and in the name of the One who loves us all." I learned that although invoking the Trinity does not mesh well with the Unitarian theology from which our denomination arose, many people do wish to be baptized using this familiar form. Personal theology is given precedence. The second half of the baptismal phrase acknowledges those Unitarian roots. In UU fashion, a person being baptized may chose how they wish the invocation spoken.

The second memorable ceremony was the renewal of baptismal vows for the rest of us. Rev. Kathleen Rolenz taught us that Luther urged Christians to practice daily renewal of the baptismal covenant by placing a hand on the head each morning and saying, "I am a baptized person, and today I will live out my baptism." While Rev. Rolenz held the bowl of water, we each rose, dipped a hand in and touched our foreheads, repeating that promise silently or aloud. I have participated in numerous baptismal ceremonies, many in which the congregation is asked to responsively recite the renewal of baptismal vows, but I have never felt the rush of the Spirit as I did by the simple act of wetting my fingers in the cool water, pressing that water to the skin of my forehead and making a quiet, yet public declaration.

I have brought this particular ritual home. I don't do it every day, but when I do, I feel a centering and a calming in my soul. It reminds me of who I am. A Christian. And it reminds me of what I'm supposed to do. Walk the Way of Jesus in love and compassion.

Do you have any rituals that help you focus on your higher purpose, center you for the day ahead? If not, try the one I've described. Place your hand on your head and say...

"I am a baptized person and today, I will live out my baptism."

May it be so. Amen.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Tale of Two Churches

We Unitarian Universalists affirm Seven Principles that guide our behavior and our lives. The Third Principle states: "We...covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations." As a theological group, Theists (with Christians) account for only 10% of Unitarian Universalists. And many of us UU Christians know first hand that our fellow UU's sometimes have difficulty accepting and encouraging our spiritual growth. We can be painted with the same brush as fundamentalist or conservative Christians, and that brush, for many in our denomination, holds the colors of pain, guilt, dogma, magical thinking, authoritarianism, and judgmentalism--everything from religious pasts that is still healing.

Enter Bishop Carlton Pearson in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a congregation of mostly African American, Pentecostal seekers, embracing Universalism and looking for a new spiritual home. This group of wanderers worships for a while at the local Episcopalian church. But the fit is not exactly right for several reasons, and Bishop Pearson turns to Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, Senior Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church. Historically white, theologically inclusive, with a strong Humanist base. New Dimensions, the Pentecostal Universalists, begin worshipping at All Souls. The two ministers talk, discuss options, exchange practical and theological ideas. Share thoughts with their congregations. And in October 2008, they take a Leap of Faith.

The decision is made to enfold the several hundred seekers from New Dimensions into All Souls Unitarian.

All Souls now offers two services. The contrast between the two could not be more striking. At the early service, hymns rich in harmony and organ, sermons listened to with attentive silence, the rhythm of words from many spiritual sources and people, and quiet joy. At the second service, praise music that starts a half-hour before, people on their feet, hands upraised, clapping, sermons punctuated with "Amen!" and "Halleluja" from the congregation. The names of Jesus and God spoken and sung with abandon.

And to the surprise of many, the second service is attended by many current All Souls members, who tried it out...and stayed. New members begin to find a spiritual home within a denomination pledged to embracing diversity and inclusiveness.

In an article written by Rev. Lavanhar ("Spiritual Brokeness", Simple Gifts: The All Souls Journal, March 2009), it is clear that all is not smooth sailing. The praise music reignites memories of old and painful trauma. People complain, "I came to All Souls to get away from all that." What is the "that" they are escaping, Rev. Lavanhar asks. And learns that there is a long list of past religious experience from which people have fled: the way women were treated, anti-intellectualism, homophobia, proselytizing, the way other traditions were demonized, just to name a few. And Rev. Lavanhar points out that none of this has come to All Souls with its new members. What has come is a chance to bring out those old wounds which have been covered up or skillfully avoided and heal them.

"At All Souls", Rev. Lavanhar concludes, "we are not simply expounding lofty religious ideals, we are becoming the world we hope to see."

If a similar opportunity arose to embrace diversity--theological, racial, political, all of the above--by adding double the number of current members to your congregation, would you do it? Would you live out the Third Priniciple? Would you follow the Way of Jesus, the Gospel of Inclusiveness?

Friday, May 1, 2009

"God Is So Much Better..."

Tulsa, OK. Revival. Saturday morning. Keynote Worship.

The sanctuary of All Soul's Unitarian Church on S. Peoria reflects a measure of God's diversity--colors, ages, genders--and pulses with more of that joyful noise God so loves. The service is emotional because it presents two extraordinary stories, one of the expanse of God's love, another of the merging of two churches.

Bishop Carlton Pearson's sermon does not begin with God, but with the Devil. In Bishop Pearson's upbringing, the Devil was invoked even more often than God because the Devil is as powerful as God, just as present and is always waiting...waiting...waiting to spring and drag you to Hell. Demons do the Devil's bidding and can possess you, turn you to evil, lead you to Hell if you do not remain ever-vigilant. Bishop Pearson remembers people living in fear of God's reprisal: simply leaving us to the Devil's horrors. He remembers his family grieving after the death of a loved one because they knew that their mother or aunt or grandfather was now tortured in hellfire for eternity. Bishop Pearson used to drive past All Souls Church and pray for the poor fools because they refused to live in fear, refused to believe in the specter of the Devil, refused to believe in Hell, refused to exclude people from God's family. In other words, the members of All Souls were damned.

In his sermon, Bishop Pearson does not relate the details of his enlightenment, his conversion experience. He has done that elsewhere. He shares what he learned. God revealed to him, chided him, that we humans (creative interpretors that we are) have mostly gotten it wrong. There is no need for humans to convert every person on earth in order to save them. God already did that. In spades. For all humankind. Remember? Jesus? Cross? What part of all do you not understand? Humor, irony, pathos, joy, and solid intellectual integrity with Biblical references to back up every statement. That is what Bishop Pearson shares in his sermon. And reminds us how SMALL our conceptions of God are. How often we try to "box" God into the confines of our own understanding, our own needs, our own fears. "God is so much better than you can conceive!" rings from the pulpit. Thank God! Alleluia! Amen.

Bishop Pearson lays out his thoughts, study and conclusions in his 2006 book, "The Gospel of Inclusion." I've added it to the LTS Bookstore. The story of this man's embracing of Universalism, his expulsion from his Evangelical church, and his search for a new truth is truly inspiring. But it is not the end of the story. For as he preached this new truth and faced expulsion from his church, a group of his former congregation decided to join him in leaving. There begins the Tale of Two Churches. I'll write about that next week.

Until then, take a look at your own beliefs about God's willingness and ability to save. What does salvation mean to you? Can you accept that Hitler went to Heaven? He does in the Universalism perspective. How does the concept of Hell play for you? Do you "box" God in?