Tuesday, February 20, 2007

If A Mormon, could a UU, hear Hail to the Chief?

And now for something completely, maybe, different for this blog....

I have been listening and reading to a lot of the commentary about the effects of Mormonism on Romney's political chances of being the next U.S. President. A few questions come up:

1. I remember when his father ran for President in the 60s and is it just me or did I miss the same level of flurry and concern back then? Or was it all tied in to perceived chances of electability? Or is it another sign of how political religion has become as compared to back then, at least back then as I remember experiencing it in Oklahoma.

2. Could a Mormon get elected in 2008, but a Unitarian Universalist, any UU, couldn't? My own hunch is that a UU couldn't. I remember an editorial of a few years ago during the last election cycle I think when George Will wrote, to effect, that if the U.S. could survive electing a Unitarian in the early 20th century with Taft then the U.S. could survive electing X (I don't remember who it was who was running and their faith was brought into it). But that's a little different answer than could a Unitarian or UU be elected today? Just as I heard commentators saying that Romney will have to address the various belief issues and associations connected with the LDS, a UU would have to address, right off the bat, polyamory and infidels and pagans, and that's before getting to GA resolutions.

3. If a UU couldn't get elected President (and in various loose definitions we have had at least 5 and maybe 6 Presidents so far, the last being Taft and the last close call being Stevenson, if memory serves), what does that say about UUism and Americans?

4. If I were a UU and wanting to be elected President, and stay UU and worship regularly in D.C. at the UU churches, for example, I think I would move to a very blue state and run as a kind of indepedent Republican, a reverse Lieberman, for Governor, and then pray to be picked as Vice-President candidate first on a winning ticket, and all the while be very self-differentiated about my faith and treat all the "guilt by association" issues that came up like Jimmy
Carter treated brother Billy.

5. This has a more serious undertone than I have allowed myself, and for church and ministry planters there might also be some lessons here too about the "denominational dance."

Crossan, Empire, Rebel Forces, and Church

A belated promised post.

I heard several lectures by John Dominic Crossan (www.johndominiccrossan.com) a couple of weeks ago here in Tulsa that are coming from his soon to be published book "God and Empire." And then, a snippet from his travelling lecture on Empire is included in the new progressive Christian DVD curriculum, Saving Jesus, www.livingthequestions.com/savingjesus.html which we are using at The Living Room Church, www.livingroomchurch.net. They are a good diagnosis of the recently ascending (more recently descending?) trend in American political society toward Empire, but of course I am hearing what he has to say in terms of the Empire of Church As We Know It, and coming away more committed to joining and spreading the rebel forces that are beginning to coalesce around anti-imperical values for "church-ing."

His four main markers for the way Empire's work are by stressing: 1.piety; 2. war; 3. victory; 4. peace. My summation of his thinking on this would be that Empire's lace everything they do and say with religious/spiritual language and ritual (piousness or false piety I might say, since I have a strong kinship with historical pietiest movements within the radical reformation, for example) in order to appear to have God on their side (rather than worrying, as Lincoln said, whether God was or wasn't on their side). Once this connection is made they are able to wage war without engendering more than minimal protest because to challenge them then is to challenge the very values they are coopting. War is waged so that peace can be achieved through victory, and the hallmarks of that peace are that the values of stability and order and Empirical views are manifest--worldviews, for example, that true power comes from might, and is expressed in appearance, affluence, achievement. This is an all-too brief synopsis as Crossan brings in other cultural markers of Empire as well through everything from economics to pornography.

His model of anti-Empire subversive living is, of course, Jesus and Paul, and their values that became incarnated in the early church. It is no secret that the lessons of Jesus' relationships and of the "early church" in the pre-Constantine era are attractive to people in many levels, and the work of the Jesus Seminar in highlighting the alternative vision of Empire through the Parables has helped to fuel this fervor. I wonder what parable-living aimed at Church life would cause? I know it has fueled my own fever for alternative church-ing, and I recognize the signs in many others in the emerging church.

What I am wondering is if this anti-Empire thinking and acting that is cropping up more and more on many fronts local and global, directed most visibly at political and economic institutions, might also be at work in the challenge to the existing religious institutions? Will there be a joining of forces? Some of this is also captured in Frost's book Exiles, which I blog about below. Will churches be faced with how their identity and organization and values and budget reflect Empire values? Is there an inherent conflict or lack of integrity between church values and Empire manifestations, and could this unspoken or unnamed dichotomy be adding to church woes? Are churches caught living in the shell of Empire-model from the days of Churchdom at the time people are looking for rebel forces to give themselves to? Crossan says the Greeks learned you can't have democracy and Empire, and the Romans learned you can't have Republics and Empires. I wonder what the parallels for religious life are as well. Crossan does mention how the monasteries became the seedbeds for anti-Empire living after the "Ceaser-ization" (my bad word not his) of Christ and Church. Are small groups and twelve-step groups and all the revolutionary stirrings in church society today the new monasteries?

Another way of looking at this, maybe, is: What effects might the post-Bush End of Empire ripplings forebode for spiritual communities and the next generation which is coming of age in the "hoped-for" wake of the Iraq war?

By the way, Crossan will be the keynote person during the UU Christian Fellowship Revival this year, to be held in Cleveland, Nov. 1-4, 2007. See www.uuchristian.org. His focus will be on Paul, then and now.

Friday, February 16, 2007


If some of you, like me, were blown away by "The Shaping of Things To Come", get prepared for the next step. You can find it in "Exiles: living missionally in a post-christian culture" by Michael Frost, one of the co-authors of The Shaping of Things To Come.

In the radical subversive spirit of Jesus he takes on not only the mainstream church, which he still sees as effective, but also corporations, the way we eat, the way we are destroying the Earth, destroying the poor, creating new military Empires, and pretty much supporting all those things Isaiah and Jesus said God was against, and not supporting all those things they said God was for.

Here I will simply post some favorite excerpts and points from the pivotal, for me, chapter on "Fashioning Collectives of Exiles." But before he can get to this he first draws a helpful distinction between "community" and "communitas." The first, Community, fosters inward focus and the second, communitas, fosters social togetherness outside society; the first has a focus on encouraging each other, the second on the task at hand; the first, a safe place, the second pushes society forward; the first, something to be built, the second experienced through liminality. Liminality, or putting your core at the edge of things, is key. It keeps groups from becoming the pseudo-communities of so many churches. He says "building community for its own sake is like attending a cancer support group without having cancer." The creation of "safe place" is not to escape missional engagement but as a means to an end.

---begins with the story of the exile, the dropout from regular church who had ADD and was quickly bored, and yet who for years stuck with the church passively as he'd known it. Then he starts going to the lake on Sundays and waterskiing. Feels guilty about it though and decides to simply have a time of prayer in the boat on the lake and asks his friends if there is anything they want him to pray about. That's it. Spends the rest of the day with friends and skiing. Then as more and more people join them for the skiing outings and begin hungering for something more spiritual as part of it, they begin to have meals together and include communion ritual as way of introducing their sacred meal together. They took up a collection and gave it to the poor. They included a short devotion. They started looking for ways to help others at the lake, fixing their boats if broken. They were exiles who were "churching."

---Around the world, especially in the southern hemisphere, people are coming together and "rejecting denominationalism and central authority," "seeking a life focused on Jesus," "seeking to live more missionally."

---We make "church planting" too hard. [this is worthy of its own post, and one of the themes of this blog btw]. People can't imaging "starting a church" [that old mechanistic metaphor again] without getting a building, an ordained leader.

---We try to build churches like ships, when we should, in the words of Saint-Exupery, teach people to want to sail the ocean. The author of The Little Prince wrote: "If you want to build a ship, don't summon people to buy wood, prepare tools, distribute jobs and organize the work; teach people the yearning for the wide, boundless ocean."

---From the Third Place Communities in Australia, comes these markers: 1. Let Jesus be your Reference Point. 2. Embrace a radical spirituality of engagement. 3. Be inspired by prevenient grace, which means "to assume that God goes before us even into the most irreligious situations and creates fields or environments in which our Christlike example can be received. 4. Follow the missionary God into strange places. 5. Inspire people around you to do the same. [RR: This ought to be the five marks of the church and the standard by which we gauge how we are "churching."]

---When is a bunch actually a church? Frost says it happens when exile gatherings become more covenantal and involve committments. He also says they need to be Trinitarian theologically [I might see this as a repudiation of focusing on Jesus as his earlier comments implied, but I know the importance of what he is saying even without having to go where he does creedally; focusing on the Trinity theologically plays itself out as focusing on the community since the Trinity is a community, rather than on individuals]; and have a covenant of committments; and be catholic in orientation (in other words embrace other Christians whatever their tribe and seek ways to be in various relationships with them, as a way of being liminal with the church universal, and resisting the urge to be sectarian or too inward; and be intentionally missional. I like his sentence" "our proper understanding of Christ (Christology) leads us into an appropriate committment to mission (missiology) which forces us to develop the means of a common life together "ecclesiology." It must happen in that order." You don't start by organizing a church and then finding a mission and then trying to connect that to your understanding of Jesus. You start with an understanding of Jesus, (or what is salvific), and that creates the hunger and yearning for mission, to live as Jesus lives, and that leads to creating communitas to support it.

---For those congregationalists like me, I will lift up some of his practices of covenant, drawn from his own group called "smallboatbigsea." Being in covenant means they follow BELLS. B for Bless. Daily they will find a way to bless at least one other member of the community, perhaps as simply as sending an email of thanks. E is for Eat, as they eat together as a community at least three times a week. L is for Listen, weekly make time for intentional listening to God. L is for Learn, weekly study of Jesus. S is for Sent, to see each day as an opportunity to be sent into the world in some missional way. (I might add that a final S might be for Share, since they find ways during the week to share their own BELLS with one another).

I think that if someone was interested in "church planting" or in creating and sustaining a "spiritual small group" that what is included above in this post would be where I would recommend they start. It is all here, in a nutshell.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Name-Calling, or Who is an Evangelical

It is an old story. Who is in and who is out? This time, again, it is about who should be called evangelical. The ramifications beyond the theological? When reports are made about what evangelicals believe, who and what they support politically, their own demograhics, then some understanding of the spectrum of that term is helpful. Here comes George Barna who for many years has been only using the term evangelical to mean those who meet certain (nine points) of criteria. When he contrasts those who meet his criteria with those who answer yes to a survey question about being evangelical, there are wide differences. As you might expect, the number of evangelicals in the U.S. using his terminology are much less than what the polls often report. You can get the details here at http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdateNarrowPreview&BarnaUpdateID=263.

Barna's interest is in showing how complacent and "truly non-evangelical" the American church and society has become. [Note to self: Check out and see if Chris Hedges has read and commented on Barna's work in his new book American Fascists; it would seem to perhaps both contradict the fear and also, perhaps, to narrow down who Hedges is really afraid of, and to post here on my thinking that Hedges is over-exagerrating, based on what I have read of his work and my own life among the suburbanites]. Barna has been interested in an even slimmer piece of the evangelical pie than those that meet his criteria. See my earlier post on his book "Revolution." http://progressivechurchplanting.blogspot.com/2006/08/are-you-revolutionary.html The focus is on a small portion of the "true evangelicals" as he calls them, those that are finding beyond-the-church ways to live missionally, or to live deeper evangelically, off the radar of the media. But some of these "revolutionary" folks might also be what the emergent/organic folk throw in as "post-evangelical." That confuses the demographic picture even more. And many of the post-evangelicals would likely be more liberal than the Barna criteria would allow.

What does it mean to me? Well there is always that tendency to fence people out by definition, and on Barna's behalf, he does qualify everything with the axiom that only God knows people's hearts and their dedication no matter what criteria they say they meet, or what they tell pollsters. Sociologically, it is good to raise the issues he is raising. I am not sure the media will respond or know how to draw such distinctions as between "evangelicals" and "born-again Christians" and other Christians.

I know I am comfortable with applying the term evangelical Christian to myself, even though I know Barna would have a fit. I know liberal evangelical is back in the current milieu in large part because of Gary Dorrien's work on American liberal theology (see other posts here), and those he writes about. To me evangelical means 1.) being gospel-centered (which also to me itself means being inclusive, progressive, non-creedal or "non-criterial") and 2.) committed to creating a world more in the image of the gospel (which to me means planting communities that reflect that gospel). My liberalism (and UUism) grows out of my being Christian.

But, in case there was ever any doubt, my "evangelical" identity departs from Barna's. I include him, though he wouldn't me, and that makes all the difference.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Life in Leper-land Rant

This will be a quick post. You all know how much I have talked and written about how liberals, and my UU tribe I know the best, treat all things evangelicals as if leprosy were afoot, so to speak. We always have that tendency. But I have to say I think we do a better job of it than the other way around, in general, and these days anyway. I sense an eagerness among UUs to learn from evangelicals. We get a lot out of the Purpose-Driven Church book by Rick Warren, for example, and that might be as far as some of us can go, but it's something.

When I correspond with some Christians in the "emergent church" world, or go to meetings (those where we UUs including UU Christians are actually allowed in) I can have a great conversation and sharing about the books we are all reading the same, or about the church plant I am engaged with, but then we will get around to talking about our denominations and difficulties, or our tribes, and there is this stunned, attacked, deer in the headlights look when I say I am UU. Adding my ministry is with the Christian Fellowship doesn't seem to lessen the shock; if anything it might be seen as adding to it. I feel sort of like Jesus might have when he was spinning out that parable of the leaven to those hearing it for the first time.

There is very little follow-up. Maybe at best a "that must be a difficult job" comment. Those who have been standing up there preaching about the old modern church has to embrace the postmodern lepers of society, the non-Christians, the de-churched, the new-Agers, as well as the creative crazies, don't know what to do when faced, within their midst and at their table, with someone approaching that very thing, or at least someone who has regular close encounters with those folks. You'd think they might want to learn something from us, even if it is about all the mistaken paths we might have taken.

I know there are many reasons, and probably justifiable ones for this reaction from their perspective (I doubt there are any from Christ's perspective, but then I labeled this a rant anyway); these folks already get attacked from the right, and to be seen eating at the table with the ultra-liberal theologically doesn't help them with their base, so to speak. We've been down this road in church history before; within our own UU history of course in those days when we were working out covenants with other congregationalists and then later with transcendentalists and their ilk, and on and on; I also think about Luther's decision not to "go there" in revisiting the doctrine of the Trinity as part of Reformation as some close to him urged him to do, in large part because of what it might have implied for too much change and that would have been too threatening to the Princes backing him.

Enough rant. There are real lepers out there, (I think of Jim Mulholland's unpublished book on "living with lepers", i.e. his ministry among child molesters, and how they are so considered lepers that he is having a hard time finding a publisher for the book even though he has co-authored a couple of good selling books on universal salvation.). I can't complain. But I do. Missed opportunities mostly. I will try to do my best to keep pushing the point when it happens again, as it will.

small groups struggle: embedded or cut loose?

Over at http://www.philocrites.com/archives/003409.html#8657, (one of these days I will take the time to learn how to link without writing out the url) in a post about the UUA Board meeting that became quickly about diversity which became about classism which became about small groups (I love the blogworld :) Peter Bowden mentions how many UU churches are still struggling with SGM 101. I hear a lot of this also from colleagues. I also hear a lot of "success stories." I'm all for this movement, remember that.

I know there are many many reasons why this struggle might be, but my immersion in more organic, etc. church has got me to wondering, just speculating really--are we trying to put square pegs in round holes? If we embed the small group experience within the larger church experience are we somehow domesticating the small group experience, as if making a hobby out of it instead of the life transformation it is intended to do, and/or is the struggle of small groups in larger churches, perhaps especially in mid-size (and we do have to take into account what actually sizes these categories represent), a struggle over wanting life transformation to happen and also not wanting it to happen for what if it happens and wants to multiply and think of the pressures that puts on the dynamics and family system of the larger church body? Is there something organic speaking about the struggle of small group in a larger group? Are we in a transition period where small groups as we have known them are the cocoon in which micro-churches and organic movements might actually emerge, from the ruins to come of the church as we have known it?

By the way head over to http://smallgroupministry.net/. And you UU Christian folks particularly might find useful this small group resource connection from the United Church of Canada at www.united-church.ca/smallgroup/.

First Organic Church Movement Conference

I wasn't there, but wish I had been. So, here are some reflections I found interesting and you might too. The conference organized, organically I hope :), by Neil Cole of Church Multiplication Association. Go to the conference blogging at:



and for the background go to the CMA site at http://www.organicchurchplanting.org/

Let me know if you come across other posts or reflections on what went on at the Conference.

From Submergent Church to Name Tags

The latest issue of The Christian Century has an article about the "submergent" church. Similar to the ways of the organic church as Neil Cole has written about. The CC article isn't up yet at www.christiancentury.org but it probably will be within a week or so. The article depicts a local church that is hidden not only in mission but purposefully keeps the public unaware of its existence, the opposite of the attractional model of the church. It is a kind of mimicking of the underground church movement of China, and the first couple of centuries of the common era. People are taken to the location of the church gathering without knowing themselves ahead of time where it is. This dis-orientation and then re-orientation at the submergent church Event, often musical, can be seen as symbolic of the person in the world today, and of the way the church itself needs to be led from a false orientation through dis-orientation (where most are today) to a re-orientation of itself in the 21st century. For those of you who know Walter Brueggeman's work on the Psalms, this spiritual odyssey of the three steps of orientation, dis-orientation, re-orientation would seem familiar. So the submergent church can be seen as a kind of Psalms Church. It can also, as the article implies, be seen as a kind of corny, intentionally contrarian, church, but then such a risk runs through the Psalms too...

Some of the comments by the pastor about how the church defies everything that people come to assume of the church today, and of "success", sure resonate with me. I have found people flabbergasted by how much "so few" can do; by how much a few can give of themselves to mission; that they would think a church like our Living Room Church must have many more people present to have such a vision and mission. When they ask, "did you have a good turnout at church today?" my response is always, truthfully, the same: "It was great. You should have been there." If they follow up and ask, "how many were there?" I often reply by pausing to reflect for a second and then speaking the names of everyone who was there, whether it was one or a dozen or more. There is something powerful in that reciting of the names of who was there. It alone shifts the focus.

In the meantime until the CC gets the submergent article online, here are some links you might find of interest in a variety of ways on submergence: www.submerge.typepad.com/

And yet my learning curve, my own necessary dis-orientation, continues to widen before me. The other night at one of our gatherings I was talking with one of the first-time folks and I happened to mention at then end they might want to sign the guestbook even though we had made contact by email, and I noticed there were name tags out by the guestbook. But of course no one had any name tags on and we hadn't used name tags in "like forever." And so we started talking about the uselessness of name tags and how they kind of stood for the opposite of what we were striving for. and I put the name tags away for good. I am also putting the guestbook away for good too; we also didn't make much of it and so it has sort of quiety died away over the months. Maybe just bring it out for a special occasion sometime for the benefit of those who ask for it.

Heretic's Guide to Eternity

I mentioned below that I was reading Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor's book, "Heretics Guide To Eternity." It was a kind of fun reading for me as I didn't think it would be "as useful" as the other reading I was doing at the same time in Michael Frost's book "Exiles" or Alan Hirsch's book "The Forgotten Ways." I meant that skimming through it I could see that it covered a lot of old and familiar, and wonderful, ground for me and for many who have been particularly a part of the Christian tribe among the Unitarian Universalists lo these many decades and centuries. Like McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus. McLaren, btw, does a nice spin of summarizing the "how we got to where we are today" situation in a foreword to Burke and Taylor's book. Anyway I looked forward to just resting in the book, not being challenged by it per se. Even the cultural studies part of the book seemed to tread good fertile and familiar ground that I had been walking on with Leonard Sweet, Easum and Bandy, and Slaughter and all for some time since seminary days in the 90s. Speaking of Sweet, I will be blogging soon too on my "airplane read", his new "The Gospel According To Starbucks."

And I wasn't challenged by the book; it wasn't aimed at me anyway. But I did find it "useful". Like McLaren's work it would be easy to use as a read-and-discuss work, and I really recommend it to our UUCF groups and others who want to get beyond Borg, Spong, Crossan, et al in the Jesus Seminar. And I have already made reference to the book here locally with others at The Living Room to the mini-guide to living spiritually that Burke and Taylor include at the end of the book: don't just search for information but for wisdom, break your own rules, and get connected.

The page I dog-eared is this one: It is the challenge posed to the default mode of church as we have come to so often embody it, especially those churches of the liberal stripe who in other ways see themselves as moving past the church of the past---

"I mentioned earlier that our church--a house church, more than anything--often brings food to a nearby park and shares a meal with whoever happens to be there that day. Many of the people we meet rely on public organizations or churches to provide food, and they know how the game is played, so to speak. They've come to understand that there are certain expectations for their behavior and have learned to act accordingly. Consequently, once they find out we're a church, they automatically move into a rote speech they think we want to hear. It usually begins with something like this: 'I used to have a successful business, a family...' or some other rosy story of the past. Then, if that doesn't seem to be resonating, they'll shift gears to the future and cover the same subjects--jobs, reconnecting with their families, getting stable places to stay. They seem to think if they don't talk about these things--or in some way distance themselves from who they are today--we won't be interested in them anymore. Yes, we want to affirm their hopes, dreams, and desires, but at the end of the day, we really just want to be with them, no strings attached. No matter who they are, where they've been, or where they're going tomorrow, the act of sitting on a bench in a public park and sharing a bucket of chicken is, in and of itself, enough. Simply being with each other is a sacred moment. 'Other people come to serve us lunch, but you come and have lunch with us," one of the ladies said to me once. Another time, the comment was equally profound: "Other people throw rocks at us, but you throw a party."

I had read or heard of this story before; it still moves me with the paradigm shift it invokes. If we took it to heart it would be extremely challenging: how do we change our "serving others" to "being and sharing with others" and how would that change everything the church is and does, from its organization and leadership to worship "services" to its "outreach." Etc. A simple story with profound implications if we follow its spirit.

It also reminds me of probably a little known book, written by a former seminary professor of mine, who worked in this field, both in thought and in deed. You might check it out. It is called "The Mutuality of Care" by Roy Steinhoff-Smith. It is full of insights and stories like this one, and their ramifications.

You can also see discussion of the Burke and Taylor book at www.songoftheopenroad.blogspot.com and of course at www.theooze.com