Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sundays in America: King's Chapel

The UU Beacon Press recently published "Sundays in America: A yearlong road trip in search of Christian faith" by Suzanne Strempek Shea. In it, she, who grew up Catholic, spends a year visiting non-Roman Catholic churches in America each Sunday. One of those, visited on the third Sunday of Advent, is King's Chapel in Boston.

She writes that she hadn't planned to visit a UU church because she was just doing non-Roman Catholic Christian Churches, but then a UU told her, she writes, "some congregations lean Christian, including a very historic one in my very own state."

She had a good visit. She describes the building and the history of its founding in 1686, talks about Unitarianism in Transylvania a bit, and then describes her visit. A woman who sits near her describes KC as like Episcopalian, but High Episcopalian. that her own beliefs are summed up that Jesus Christ was born, but not of a virgin. She talks about the current ninth edition of the 550 page Book of Common Prayer. Then she goes through the service element of the order by element, including "we read the general confession and prayer from the book of common prayer. the words are a bit different but it's essentially the same soul-cleaning that has started so many services this year. Revs. Rali Weaver, now at Dedham, and Rev. Earl Holt, are leading the service.

A reading from Luke is used where John the Baptizer is calling the crowds a brood of vipers, from which much of the sermon comes. She finds the choir dazzling. She mentions the female usher. She highlights the announcements particularly of Milk Punch Sunday, three decades long. Watchmen, Tell Us of the Night is sung, one that is new to her.

She sees "Pastor Earl' materialize in the big pulpit and wishes she had seen him climbing the stairs. Earl addresses John and Advent and says there is no way through Advent without John; joking that the Advent before he retires, he is going to start a sermon like that; "you brood of vipers!" He talks about baptism and the desire for change, and how Jesus demands all we have, now just a little of us. "Maybe," she quotes Earl saying, "that's why they came out, to be confronted with the truth about themselves.' She quotes more of his sermon. And says, "I like Pastor Earl. I like his words. I like his smarts. I like his little white bow tie. I don't know firsthand what goes on in the mainline UU churches, but I could have plunked any member of my Roman Catholic family in this church this morning and afterward heard nary a "what was that about?'"

The other churches during the year are:
New Mount Zion Baptist Church, NYC, Colorado Springs Cowboy Church; First Baptist, Spartanburg, SC, Arch Street Friends Meeting House, Philadelphia, First Church of Christ Scientist, Boston, St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church, Newport, RI, Cadet Chapel, West Point, Trinity Evangelical Church, Peterborough, NH, Trinity Episcopal Church by-the-sea, Hawaii, South Royalton Ward Meetinghouse, Vermont, St. Sebastian Catholic Church, Baltimore, Maranatha Baptist Church, Plains, GA; Philadelphia Deliverance Church of Christ, Columbus, OH, Calvary's Light Church, Three Rivers, MA, UMC of Enfield, CT, Unity, Unity Village, MO; Lakewood Church, Houston, TX; The Riverside Church, NYC, Lagniappe Presbyterian, Bay St. Louis, Miss; Moffett Road Assembly of God, Mobile Ala; Meetinghouse of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, New Gloucester, Maine; Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church, San Francisco; Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, Calif, Mars Hill Church, Seattle; Trinity UCC, Chicago; Genesis Church of the Brethren, Putney, Vermont; Danbury-Bethel Seventh-Day Adventist, Bethel CT, Calvary's light Church, Three Rivers, MA; First Spiritual Temple, Brookline, MA; Living Waters Foursquare Gospel Church, Smithfield RI, North Reformed Church, Newark, NJ; Metropolitan Community Church, Richmond VA; Mashpee Baptist Church, Mashpee MA, Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church, Omaha, NE; Brown Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal, Louisville, KY; Central Moravian, Bethlehem, PA; Times Square Church, NYC, The Portland New Church, Portland ME, Holy Cross Polish National Catholic Church, Hamtramck Michigan, Kykotsmovi Mennonite Church, Kykotsmovi Village, Hopi Nation; Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses, Milwaukie, OR; Northhampton Vineyard, Northampton, MA; Calvary Chapel, Fort Lauderdale, FL; Harvest Church of the Nazarene, Las Vegas, NV; Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, Memphis TN, All Saints Parish, Brookline MA; St. Mary's Convent, Greenwich NY, Revolution Church, Brooklyn, NY; Interfaith Chapel, Denver Airport.

Here is one of her concluding paragraphs: "I don't know what the others are finding in their travels, but the past year has distilled for me the qualities I'd need in a new church home: a community that welcomed me warmly, didn't give a whit about my politics or lifestyle, gave tons of whits about the social justice needs locally and beyond, contained little-to-no hierarchy, allowed congregants a say in decisions large and small offered a spiritual message inspired by love rather than fear, and did all this in an art-filled space that rang with awesome music."

Monday, July 28, 2008

If This Is Your First Blog Visit or you haven't read through all the posts...

If this is your first blog visit, welcome. Maybe you are coming here after reading the article about us in the recent Interconnections newsletter for lay leaders of Unitarian Universalist churches, or you have been here before but not had time to really explore Planting God Communities. Anyway, check out this post where you can click on other intro-type posts: Or go down to the posts called The Basics and I will be refreshing these soon too, along with some new commentary and book reviews on the organic church.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Theology & North Tulsa sermon: Into a Wilderness

This past Sunday I preached a surprising second time, filling in for a sick colleague at the last minute. I decided rather than using a "canned" sermon, or doing a general call and response question and answer sermon box sermon which I have used on such occasions, I decided to keep to the already arrived upon sermon title and the responsive reading, and preach on what they stirred in me, on what another colleague calls 'the burr under your saddle" which in recent days due to a surge in drive by killings in north Tulsa has been our area and the calling to live and serve here. Again what follows after you click below is the text from which the sermon was preached, not the actual delivery itself.

Into a Wilderness, Rev. Ron Robinson
Reading: The parable of the mustard seed, commentary by Brandon Scott---
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
According to the custom and law of the time, when the mustard seed is planted, it is important that is not be commingled; that it be in its proper place. The basic rule is simple; maintain order and separation, keep plants in their proper place. and do not mix them. Keep like things separate. Normally mustard is to be sown in small patches and at the edges of a field. In addition, since mustard tends to run wild when sown, it would soon move into the wheat and even more confuse what should be distinct. By planting the seed in a garden, the person has risked breaking the (Deuteronomic) law of diverse kinds by mixing what should not be mixed, creating the garden as an unclean spirit. (For Jesus) the kingdom is associated with uncleanness just as Jesus himself associates with the unclean, the outcast. (From excerpts from Hear Then The Parable). The Responsive Reading was from Walt Whitman's Song of the Open Road.

Sermon: Into A Wilderness

I get the sentiment behind Walt Whitman’s song of the open road, the call of the wild, the urging not to live lives of complacency and conformity, but I admit it strikes a tone a bit too idealistic, a little too optimistic about the beckoning wilderness for my soul these days. Maybe it comes from being a native and returning resident these past few years of the wilderness known as North Tulsa. Lately these past few weeks we have been in one of those drive-by surges of shootings and killings that give our general area its bad rep, Living in the Turley part of North Tulsa, outside the political boundaries of the city limits but contiguous with it, sometimes we are at pains to talk about how different we are from North Tulsa, and how safe we feel, how we are rural and small town as well as urban, and this is true; and yet it is a pretty unbroken line that connects us whatever the politically drawn lines of incorporation are; the school includes city and non-city parts; we shop, work, go to church in the area together. So, at times when some folks in Turley like to distinquish themselves from north Tulsa, especially at times such as these, I tend to go the opposite direction and talk about our commonalities, our unified destiny.

And sometimes I think too I feel sort of how the indigenous American Indian people must have felt who made their home, happily, for generations, in what others, from outside the area, called “the wilderness.” It is just home to us. Where the shootings happen isn’t north Tulsa as much as where so-and-so lives, or so-and-so sends their kids to day camp.

Wilderness, like the frontier, is a powerful word, powerful symbol. Traditionally, it has been connected with individualism; man vs. nature, one of the great plots I was taught, and like Huck Finn at the end “lighting out for the territory ahead’ leaving civilization and the Aunt Sallys of the world behind. Our Unitarian church historian Conrad Wright, professor emeritus at Harvard, has even written of how the second-and-third generation movement of colonials out of their Puritan compounds, say in the 1670s, out to their own plots of land, actually created the sense of the rugged individual that became known as the American; and in fact, he says, it was this sense of the individual that gave rise to the religious liberal spirit, and a century later, to political liberalism and democracy.

In some sense, wilderness as seen as that kind of place that is a little chaotic, where people don’t settle or feel settled but uprooted, like the ancient Hebrews wandering in the desert wilderness in the biblical story, that kind of sense is all about us today, and it too isn’t something that one yearns for, goes in search of. It’s not like we have to be on the move to feel unsettled; life will do that on its own.

We have a love-hate relationship with wild places; we are taming them as fast as we can, or keeping them in set-aside spaces, but we are finding that even as we destroy our actual wild places, so that the wild animals don’t have a natural place to be, that they are, lo and behold, coming back into our cul-de-sacs. So it is with all of life’s wilderness. What we turn our backs on will turn us around to face it.

It reminds me of how the transformative Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. was changed from a sanctuary into a place of mission after a gangfight spilled over into its church aisles one Sunday morning. You can’t segregate wilderness of any kind. If it is the natural world, or if it is a wilderness of crime, or sickness of the mind, heart, body, and soul, especially addictions and materialism; whatever you seek to ignore or repress will find you and your communities.

Again, I wonder if calling something wilderness doesn’t allow us to put it out of sight and mind.
I’ve been thinking of this as we have had a year full of community forums and partnerships in our area of north Tulsa with the aid of the OU Dept. of Social Work. One of the things we have learned is that if we let a place such as north Tulsa be known in the public’s mind as only a kind of wilderness, then others tend to leave it alone and let it be, perhaps from not knowing how to interact comfortably with other cultures, but all which is still a convenient excuse especially given the historical ways of abuse and neglect by others that caused it to be considered wild in the first place. Anxious and uncomfortable connecting with others is better than nothing.

This past year in our work together since we opened our A Third Place community center, we discovered the great power that comes not in focusing on statistics, which are dire indeed, or on focusing on the stereotypes, of which there are many, but instead focusing on the strengths inherent in the people and the place, all people, anyone, and focusing on the stories and the spirit that sustain the people and give them hope and pull them into community and a spirit of abundance despite their own skepticism.

A glance at a few of our statistics for the area in a two mile radius of our center, our service area, can get people into despair and a scarcity sense, feeling as if we don’t have enough of this or that and never will, Here are a few of the statistics about the place we live and work and do church, from a study done a few months ago:
Within a two mile radius, live 12,464 persons, a decrease of 3.6 percent since 1990--at the same time the national average grew by 21 percent. We are projected to continue decreasing between now and 2013 by another 4.5 percent while the national population is projected to grow another 4.6 percent. 52.9 percent women; 47.1 percent men.

(But if gas prices soar, if the real estate market busts, if younger families decide to live in areas of high diversity and greater neighborhood density and get out of or stay out of debt instead of sinking into more debt, and if the yearning for a little land without the kind of city restrictions on it, and if cultural creatives look for ways to make moral investments with their money and lives and create workplaces inexpensively…..)

Racial/Ethnic Diversity (High): We have a very higher than national average racial/ethnic diversity with whites at 21.4 percent, and African Americans at 66.6 percent and all others at another 12 percent (Native American 4.1, other races and multiple races 4.3, Hispanic 2.7). Hispanics are projected to be the fastest growing group in our area between now and 2013, increasing their numbers by 20.3 percent to be 3.5 percent.

(wonderful to see our church building turned into a community building reflect this diversity, with friendships being made across racial and ethnic lines in ways that wasn’t being done when we had a typical church space…always more to be done; we think more partnering with Restoration will help us both, and working even more with the elementary school and the local park center which also reflects this diversity…)

Family structures: Defined as “extremely non-traditional” due to small number of married and two-parent families. We have much higher than the national average of singles who have never married, and of divorced and widowed. Marital status of all persons over 15--45.2 percent married, 32.9 percent never married, 21.9 percent divorced/widowed. Of households with children 0-18, 49.3 percent have female head of household, 41.9 percent married couple head of household, 7.7 percent male head of household, and 1 percent non-family head of household.

Education Attained (Low): College graduates account for 7.1 percent of those over 25 years old, compared to 24.4 percent in the nation. High School graduate 37.4, some college 21.7, some high school 21.2, less than 9th grade 6.8, associate degree 5.7, bachelors 5.0, graduate, 2.1.

Household Concerns That show Up Higher than National Average: finding spiritual teaching, neighborhood gangs, racial/ethnic prejudice, finding a good church, neighborhood crime and safety, and alcohol/drug abuse.

Income: The average household income (roughly half national average): Now $35,233 per year, compared to national average of $66,670. Per capita income (and remember that our area has an unusually high number of singles and single-parent families) is $12,229. Households by Poverty Status (in 2000 for family of 4 this was $17,603): 21.7% of those under 65 below poverty line, 2.8% above 65yo below poverty line. Totals 24.5% or nearly a quarter of residents in two mile radius.

Employment (unemployment double national average): We have a much higher than the national average of blue collar workers, especially of laborers, and we have an unemployment rate of 7.2 percent compared to the 3.7 percent national average--we have in our two mile area 9,200 people over age 15, and of those 53.9 percent are employed, 7.2 percent are unemployed, and 38.9 percent are not in the labor force. Of the unemployed who have children, we have 1.5 percent compared to the national average in this situation of 0.3 percent.

Vacant Units by Type: A much higher than national average presence of vacant housing units (not including vacant business units). 40.5 percent of vacant housing units are not for rent or sale, 32.7% for rent, 26.8% for sale.

Owner-occupied Property Values: 22.4% under $25,000 (compared to national average of 2.4%), 53.5% between $25-49,999 (7.5 national). So almost 80 percent of housing under $50,000 value (10% national). 16.9 percent 50-74,999, 4.0 75-99,999, 2.1 100-149,000, 1.0 150-199,999. Median property value $41,617 compared to national $158,934.

Social “Lifestyle” analysis: We have three main lifestyle segments living within our two mile radius: “metro multi-ethnic diversity” group at 35.7 percent (Areas 6bcdef, Tulsa); “struggling black households at 23.7 percent” (Areas 1,2, 6a, Tulsa & Turley); “laboring country families” at 11.3 percent (Areas 3,4, 5, outside Tulsa, in Turley) all of which in these categories are way over the national average. (The bringing together and breaking down barriers between these groups is a mission itself.)

Focusing on Statistics, though, are like drawing a map of a wilderness—it shows you what and where the challenges might be, but is not much use in getting through them. What we have experienced have been moments of surprising grace where people form relationships and move from a place of first looking to see what they can get from our center and programs, into taking ownership and helping others, a give-away and a give-back center, in a place where people often think they have nothing to give. One of my favorite recent examples is how we have partnered this summer, while I have been away working and on vacation, with some people who have no electricity at home and come to the center as a shelter of cool, as in the winter they do for warmth, and they end up being hosts with a key to the place, a key to the kingdom…you might say.

In the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part, nothing can be contained forever; what besets north Tulsa will affect downtown, which will affect the riverside and which will affect all of Tulsa, and to the suburbs as well; if it is voting for needed projects, if it is creating good schools, if it is transforming images of ourselves so we can attract healthy industries; in all of this, north Tulsa (and it is emblematic of what is happening in other sections of the city too, of course, with their own unique histories and struggles) North Tulsa and its issues, stereotypes, and wilderness will not be contained by Admiral Street. The wolf displaced by the new subdivision will find a way to hunt there still, and its prey this time will not be jackrabbits, but jack and jill, because the rabbits have been displaced too in the rush to have pure safe uniform places.

There are different ways too for trying to separate out wilderness. It doesn’t help, for example, when the Home Depot on S. 11th Street and Elgin puts up a big sign thanking people for shopping in north Tulsa. If people think that South 11th Street is north Tulsa, then we will be able to ignore the real North Tulsa still, Where, and you may think it is a small matter but it has deep resonance particularly with youth, but where you still can’t go see a movie, or get a pizza delivery if you are among the thousands of us living north of Archer, and in some places north of Pine, just a mile from downtown, You can’t get a pizza delivered to home, church, work. And it’s not because of crime; pizza deliveries are made to areas in Tulsa that actually have the highest crime rate, not just the stereotypical one. I may have preached on this before….

But In a world with a perspective where investments and decisions are made based on morality of being in one community, one family, people and companies and churches would be rushing to be a part of our wilderness, because so much transformation is going on that it is transforming the lives of everyone who comes into contact with it; not only would we have pizza delivery, but we would have the best grocery stores too instead of mostly having high priced convenience stores within the reach of many folks without transportation, or having grocery stores where only the unhealthiest and least organic of food items is available—no wonder poverty and obesity go together; we would have Whole Foods in north Tulsa precisely because of our demographics, not in spite of them, and the same is true for new shopping centers and new housing starts, because people who have the means to get across town would be able to get to north Tulsa still to take advantage of them, and those without the means would be able to access them more easily in their own midst, and in my ideal, kingdom of God economy, people would be better able to afford the good food because there wouldn’t be a sales tax on food or medicine, and we would have public support of community gardens which is better than any grocery store no matter how fancy, and gasoline prices would be raised to reflect the finite nature of their resource, and the gas tax would go toward providing better public transportation system for the least of these; and North Tulsa would have the best schools because property taxes across the state would go into the places historically the least funded, and you wouldn’t have situations like where an all white suburban place like Fort Gibson gets all the money while the high-minority district like neighboring Muskogee struggles; and while I am at it, you would know that it takes a community to raise a school, and so you wouldn’t destroy communities in the name of building magnet schools, and where you have one of the best public high schools in the nation, in Booker T. Washington, in North Tulsa, you would have one of the best communities surrounding it, because new rooftops really would follow good schools, and good retail would follow the new rooftops, instead of being content at creating a little island of wonderful diversity and education for kids in large measure from outside north Tulsa in the midst of a community that struggles to survive. It is great that all of the high schools in Tulsa are getting some kind of special magnet school designation, but it is almost 30 years too late for the public schools in North Tulsa where dedicated people commit everyday to undoing one child at a time the damage of the communities.

People eager for meaning in their lives would rush to live in north Tulsa, rebuking the realtors who try to steer them away, because they know what a gift they will receive from being a living part of something bigger than themselves, and the value of that is so much greater to pass on to their children than the value of property ever could be. (Reminds me of one OU student who started out her time with us by saying she had been warned by friends and family not to come be with us, even as part of a class; only, after being with our residents and hearing them talk about their love of the area, to talk about wanting to find a way to live here if possible).

But then again, in my ideal world, the world wouldn’t need handicapped designated parking spaces because people who are able to walk into buildings just naturally park away from the doors so that those who can’t, whether permanently so or just because they have a temporary injury, would be able too.

It’s actually a practical perspective, though, for that’s how you live in the wilderness, you know. Really. Not by being a rugged individual all on your own, and not by joining a gang of bandits—the wilderness will get both of those kinds—but by becoming a people, building a covenant with one another, carrying your tabernacle with you wherever you go,as the ancient Hebrews taught us well. In some ways, I’ve often thought, those years wandering in the wilderness, learning and shaping themselves and their relationship to one another, the earth, and God, those could be seen as the best years; once they reached the safety of the so-called promised land,in many ways, the biblical accounts say, it was all down-hill.

So I am pleased to see that a recent study began to indicate that people all over Tulsa see the primary need for focusing on, and I hope, listening to north Tulsa. I am hopeful of the decision on where to put the Drillers stadium. I am excited about what I understand will be a new county heath department building created in north Tulsa, and I of course am thrilled with the efforts OU-Tulsa has made not only working with us in Turley on the new clinic, but the plans to build a new specialty clinic our way too. But, like all north Tulsa natives, I am not holding my breath, or waiting on others to fix us. We do too much speaking of ‘they” when we need to focus more on the grassroots “we”. And there are many collaborations underway to do that too.

What we are doing is working in small ways, small ways with great love, to do what we can with what and who we have, and inviting others to partner with us. One of the great things about the interdependent web of all existence is that a people with few resources can make big effects, particularly in the wildernesses of the abandoned places of the American Empire.

And so, on that note, I end with Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. All over the world today, Christians who follow what’s called the common lectionary, or series of readings, will be lifting up this parable as part of their worship. In some ways I never have to worry about a topic to preach on, because I always have my lectionary study that guides my weekly reflection…helpful for a frequent guest preacher. But this day, for this topic, this parable is particularly apt.

Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
Here Jesus breaks down the barriers between the wild and safe spaces. Mustard is an invasive plant, and was illegal to plant in gardens in first century Israel. It would take over the carefully guarded places in our lives. But so, according to Jesus, is God’s spirit, God’s world. God is on the side of the wild. Of mixing things up.

Following the unconventional wisdom of the parable today and in our context would be like taking the presence and concerns of North Tulsa right into Woodland Hills Mall, or bringing them up in the Owasso City Council; or, as I once envisioned, it would be like not building the memorial to the Greenwood Race Massacre in Greenwood or North Tulsa, where people remember it in their bones, but instead building it at the Riverwalk in Jenks, where people would be confronted with the memory of the once thriving commercial area of Greenwood and how it was lost, and who gained. Just let the memorial, like the parable, stand and speak for itself.

May we come to know and enter into the wild places and people around us, and even the unsettling places within us, and receive there the many blessings that will come to what Whitman called the travelling souls who go there, and there find and share healing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

LOL at myself

Many reasons to do so, but the latest from today...
I saw a recommendation for me pop up on, When Truth Gives Out, by Mark Richard. Well, being in a summer fiction mindset, and knowing (I figured amazon was omniscient) that the great short story writer and novelist Mark Richard is among my favs and a must-have of anything he writes, I one-clicked it and waited eagerly for UPS.
It comes today.
It is, instead, by philosopher Mark Richard of Tufts University. It is published by Oxford University Press. I had seen that, but that the other Mark Richard must have fallen on hard publishing times (jk, oxford).

So I peruse it and it takes me back ironically to my graduate school in fiction writing days when I was immersed in all things pomo and deconstructive, socialy constructive and had written and delivered a paper of my own at a philosophy academic gathering (in, more irony, Robicheaux's cajun country of lafayette, louisiana) on philosopher Geoffrey Hartmann and had an interesting panel with some delivering their papers on Rorty and pragmatism....

Of course, now being a minister, issues of truth and relativity and propositional statements and all that ought to be of importance. and they are, of course (of course just how important is the very subject of the book I am surmising as it is of so much theological method too).

And just the night before I was reading the lastest issue of Christianity Today (see post below) and another article in there about the very issues of the Richard book, and about the rise again of apologetics, especially among Evangelical Reformed it seems, and of the answers or responses by new philosophers to the new atheist movement too.

So, okay, God, I am listening. You've hit me upside the head with a book I hadn't been planning to read. Just good thing I have already had my dose of fiction this month (see post below). I suspect anyone who is into UUism and UU Christianity as I am should be interested to get an update on all this; it does lurk in our shadows of our dealings with other UUs and other Christians. (why talk about faith with Christians, the line goes, if they won't go down the road of logic and reason and debating the very existence of God or something Godlike/lite).

It is a slender book (but then again one summer I got through Ulysses and another summer I got through Whitehead's Process and Reality, still love his sentence: God is that factor in the universe that relates the what-is to the what-is-not-yet). So stay tuned. I will report back from the fields of relativity. I already like one blurb on the book that talks about how you can hold truth as relative and still claim one truth can be objectively better than another...and that not knowing ourselves how a truth will play out in the world in the future inherently makes truth relative (for us anyway, for God might be another matter, but then I looked in the index and didn't see any reference to God or theology, which may mean it will be all about it).

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James Lee Burke's Swan Peak

If, besides his usual literate good ride of a novel, you want to experience and be moved in fiction by the parable of the leaven and of the "Good" Samaritan and the possibilities for reconciliation amid a world of evil, go read JLB's latest Dave Robicheaux novel, Swan Peak. It's all the richer if you have been living with Robicheaux these past, what, 20 years? how time passes since Neon Rain, and my favorite, Black Cherry Blues, but even if you are new you will be hooked, and keep your parables by your side as you move through it.

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More on Paradise

After you read "Saving Paradise," (see below), then go find a copy of the latest issue of Christianity Today and read David Neff's article, "Second Coming Ecology: we care for the environment precisely because God will create a new earth." Neff is a leader in the new environmental activism focus by evangelicals. I haven't found the article posted yet or discussion of it online but if you do let me know.

There is a tendency among liberals to jettison eschatology, the fulfillment of things, what is often referred to as endtimes. Sometimes we liberals manage to hold on to it by thinking of it as the "ends' or "aims" of life. In those ways a re-imagined eschatology informs Brock and Parker's new book; they also "take aim" at the standard view of conservative evangelical Christians as being too future oriented to be focused on the Present Good. There's value in that critique, as even the CT piece by Neff says. Brock and Parker and Neff also seem on the same page in the critique of liberal Christians. B&P take on Emerson's legacy of elevating the personal, and Neff talks about liberalism's "unbounded optimism" for helping our culture have a sense of itself without limits, which fuels consumerism, which destroys the earth.

The Neff article does a good job of re-imagining eschatology as Promise, and because we have the promise of a new Earth, transformed Creation, then we have an imperative to preserve This Earth Now, as it will be part of God's promised renewal. I like his point that eschatological viewpoints themselves have a way of lifting us up out of our focus on ourselves, our own times, etc. and putting us into the bigger picture, which helps us to be better stewards. So we are once again into a 180 degree shift in perspective. Once upon a time the Christian "bigger picture" made us forget the paradise here and now, along with all the other likenesses of God in the here and now; but now, a "bigger picture'" view is vital for reminding us of the likenesses of God in and among and around us.

There is some critique in B&P of the "arrow of time" and progress and future focus and how that is tied in theologically with the Christian notion of "salvation history' which can tend to put all the value of things in what is down the road instead of below our feet. Well and good. The Neff article, and of course the bigger movement among evangelicals which this article taps into, shows how the theology of anticipation, how Christians as a people of anticipation, can shift all that.

Worth checking out.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Saving Paradise by Rebecca Parker, Rita Brock

A wonderful new book on and of Christian theology, Christian history, biblical interpretation, culture, and personal spirituality by UU seminary president Rev. Rebecca Ann Parker and social activist and Disciples of Christ minister Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock, published recently by UU Beacon Press. How first milennium christianity was shaped and what it held dear, how that was in large part lost, but never completely, through the second milennium, and how now the third milennium is here another Christianity is possible; not the original; the past is past, but not the medieval or modern Christianity of the Western World either.

Click below to go to my sermon of this past Sunday on it; I will try to post more background, situating this work in the grand broad church UU Christian tradition of Frederic Henry Hedge, Henry Whitney Bellows, William Greenleaf Eliot, and James Luther Adams---critiquing, reclaiming, reimagining, putting in contemporary context. A good day and week to do this. July 15 170 years ago the 1838 Emerson address to Harvard Divinity School; on July 15 1849 the Frederic Henry Hedge address to the HDS students, offering a great corrective of Emerson without the Andrews Norton throwback critique of RWE; and on July 19, 1859, an even fuller rebuttal or at least better critique and way forward offered to HDS students by Bellows called "The Suspense of Faith." Staying a leavening part of the tradition. This work by Brock and Parker is good stuff, wide-ranging, for all Christians and those, i.e. the rest of the world, having to deal with second milennium Christianity.

The sermon text isn't the actual sermon but is close to it. I will try to come back and add in the reading from the book itself for it is an excellent summation.

Saving Paradise, sermon by Rev. Ron Robinson, Hope Unitarian Church, July 13, 2008

Reading: From excerpts of pages 417-420 of Saving paradise

A few years ago Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashimi Brock teamed up to produce a book called Proverbs of Ashes that critiqued doctrinal Christianity’s atonement theology for how it promoted so-called redemptive violence. That book about the theological misuses of the particular Christian story of crucifixion led them toward this more general look at finding what was once ultimate in Christianity in the first milennium, got submerged and almost lost in the second millenium, and is now surfacing again in the third milennium. In some ways, this book called “Saving Paradise”: How Christianity traded love of this world for violence and Empire" is about saving Christianity, which is something Unitarian Universalists have been at means to do for centuries; and on a deeper level it is about saving our communities and our lives.
The premise and trajectory of this latest, and big book, is fairly simple---most people in the Western world think Christianity is all about obtaining paradise in a life hereafter, and the way into that paradise is to have a set of beliefs, and at the center of those beliefs is Jesus’ death, and not just the death itself, but the dying itself, the cruelty of dying on the cross, that is said to have taken place in order that every human won’t have to suffer endless equally cruel dying in hell, by believing that to be the case. This is so engrained that the resurrection and paradise themselves are often relegated to minor theological parts compared to the ultimate focus on the nails through the hands and feet. But, say Parker and Brock and centuries of Unitarians and Universalists and other liberals, this is not Christianity; it is what came out of medieval times, of modern times; in fact it is in essence Empire Religion and therefore, since the roots of Christianity were opposed to the dominant culture values of the Roman Empire, what people often consider the essence of Christianity can be better viewed as a betrayal and as anti-Christian.
What is considered normative to most Christians today was not normative to most Christians in the first 1000 years after Jesus. Brock and Parker even begin their book with the catching and somewhat arresting claim—it took Jesus 1000 years to die. By that they mean that there are no existing images of Jesus’s body dying or dead on the cross for the first millennium. There may have been, of course, but we don’t have a record of them today. What we have instead from those many early centuries of the faith are images of life, of sharing bread and wine, of paradise, of new creation, of service and justice, of resurrection, of empty crosses, of this world being transformed back into a garden.
Now there are texts about the dying, of course. Very important texts in Christian scriptures, but those texts are too often interpreted from the later lens of medieval and modern theology, instead of from the spirit and culture of the times in which they were written. Like the Jewish tradition in which Jesus and the Apostle Paul lived and in which Christianity emerged, for much of the first thousand years the Christian notion of the ends of things, the endtimes, or the ultimate aims of life, what theologians term eschatology, what is often thought of as Paradise, all of this was not conceived of something separate from this world, to which one was individually raptured to, or transported to upon death after a good life following the right creed; instead it was something that would happen here on the earth, a transformation, a righting of social wrongs and injustices, a new kind of Eden, and would come to the human community as a whole.
For example, Brock and Parker offer a good Greek re-translation of the famous scripture John 3:16 which gets at the heart of this. They cite it as this: “God so generously loved the world that he placed his only Son here, so that everyone who has confidence in him may not be lost or be destroyed but may have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to put the world on trial, but so the world might be rescued through him.” They point out that at no point here, where life and love are so prominent, is death mentioned. And the Greek word used for eternal is often used not to infer a duration of time as much as to allude to an everlasting quality of experience. It is a misreading of the Greek, as later English translations did in order to back up existing theology from the medieval ages, to speak of God giving up or handing over his Son to death; there is a Greek word for such action that is used often, especially in the story of Jesus and Pilate, but it isn’t the Greek that is used here.
Throughout their book, Brock and Parker lift up innumerable places in the Bible and in the writings of the church mothers and fathers where paradise is presented as an integral, even if not always fully, part of the here and now, to be experienced now, called to be preserved now and passed on to others. And yet, while the biblical texts themselves are often the best guides for saving Christianity from what it too often has become, one of the most important insights from the Brock and Parker book is just about the role of images, of art itself, for in those pre-modern times, pre-print culture times, times cunningly alike our own now, such images in catacombs or cathedrals or simple homes or churches were how people came to be taught and understand and transmit their faith. And remember there was a Christianity before there was a Bible, even before there was any written story of Jesus. The early images also reflected Christian faith in this world and this people as full of joy and sustainability and equality, and holding out hope that this world would soon undergo a transformation, either gradual or more quickly, to fully embody a paradise that is made in the likeness of God.
In their earlier book, Proverbs of Ashes, on the ways people interpreted Christian faith and perpetuated such acts as domestic violence and child abuse and war, they take the reader on a journey that begins in blind obedience to faith that is really a destructive spirituality, then into rejection of that faith, and finally end up with a powerful scene of a reimagined faith still in touch with touchstones of that faith’s traditions—notably that book ends by describing a communion service that includes one who was an abuser and one who was abused, and how now the re-imagined communion was deeply healing and transformative and full of life and wholeness instead of being a service that triggered exclusion and seemed to echo a ritual of abuse itself.
In this book, notions of paradise and eternal life are treated the same way. Instead of being about who gets in and who is rejected from paradise, Brock and Parker show how the early shapers of Christianity focused to one degree or the other on how God so loved the world, and how we were called to do the same, and how paradise was, at least in part if not in totality, all about here and now everywhere for those with eyes to see and ears to hear and minds to understand, especially to be experienced in living in communities of faithfulness, the church, that practiced love of one another and for this world. That that was and is what Christianity is all about.
They write: “In sum, the early church—before and after Constantine—taught that paradise was a place, a way of life, even an ecosystem. The church as a community that dispensed the “medicine of life” nourished human life in paradise. The church was a concentration of paradise, a place where strengths, weaknesses, needs, and contributions of each member could complement the others. Their life in paradise was a shared accomplishment in which the exercise of human powers and the imperatives of human need worked together to save and sustain life for all members together. People could come to see the value of their own lives and learn that their actions mattered to others, to see power in a personal sense of agency. They could learn to negotiate power and its responsible uses for the good of the whole. Talents and gifts could bless many. Heavy burdens and difficulties that might have crushed individuals could instead be borne on the shoulders of many. No form of governance and no society can thrive without this interstitial zone of human contact and interaction, what the ancient church called the body of Christ, the church of the Holy Spirit, the assembly of saints, and paradise on earth. “
They write of how the tide began to turn, though, with the Empire of Charlemagne and the crushing of the Saxons and their paganish way of following Christ; gradually Christianity became more firmly a tool of the Empire instead of in tension with it, seeking to transform it; gradually the admonitions against joining armies was replaced with a religious devotion to state-sanctioned violence, and devaluing life and Creation in the here and now went hand in hand with removing paradise completely from the here and now; all of this became more fervently a part of wide Church practice with the coming of the Crusades, with the adoption of St. Anselm’s theology of an Honorable Diety being dishonored by the least of sins, including inherited ones, for which the only escape from hell was Jesus’s death in stead of, and then finally the sweep of the Black Plague in Europe made death pre-eminent in all spheres of life. It is interesting to add that the Book of Revelation, with much of its emphasis on violence and paradise (though another major part is very much anti-Roman Empire violence and culture) was itself a debatable part of the New Testament and often left out of collections until the second millennium takes hold.
And yet, and yet, this book chronicles its heroes as those who continued to lift up the once dominant understandings of paradise though they had become dissident and heretics now. Always there were women and men who through the centuries did not let the Empire Church tell them what Christianity was all about. Even influential figures such as Augustine were at times upholding this world as part of God’s paradise, and particularly the church as a way of experiencing that paradise in the days after the Roman Empire fell. This tension in the tradition itself has been seen in its leaders, even the major reformers of the Church, like John Calvin in the 16th century, helped to turn Christian passion once again toward this world, toward social justice, and reform, even though today we may find their form of social justice limited. Calvin, however, left us a mixed legacy on this point. Brock and Parker point out that in Calvin and his followers (down to this day, I would say, and among liberals too) the desire to create a perfect and pure society not only tends to end up in exclusive communities, but the effort itself spent on creating a more idealized future causes us to be disassociated from the present world within, among and around us.
Another of Calvin’s legacies, the book emphasizes, was his publishing a Bible that included a map that set out to actually pinpoint the location of the Garden of Eden. This was one of those turning points in the Christian orthodox imagination that had a great consequence. For if you can fix a specific place and time and limit where paradise once was, then you can say that it was there and not elsewhere, and so is now not there and not now, and that soon becomes no where but in another realm and world, which leads to the validation of the destruction and denigration of the here and now.
Ironically, the early chapters of Genesis do just the opposite. If you try to follow the literal clues there about the four rivers bounding the land known as Eden, you will end up geographically lost, unable to pinpoint Eden, and if you do that, then you have to see Genesis in a different light; it isn’t about how Creation was done, but why, and Paradise becomes not a matter of a single place, but of a state of being; the question is not so much where is Paradise, but when is paradise, how is paradise known? And the response from the Torah, and from the early church, is that it is present when Sabbath Creation, liberation and justice and steadfast love and mercy, is present and made real.
And of course the Calvinist Puritans in this country, coming here to establish a new form of Paradise, part of our religious ancestors, were all too willing to destroy the material Paradise, the earthly one, and all those indigenous inhabitants of it, in their quest for achieving a spiritual paradise.
This is where Brock and Parker are insightful in their critique of Puritan and Transcendentalist Emerson and his emphasis on the individual interior life as the primary authority and source of religious life. Besides pointing out that while he was writing his essay on self-reliance, he was relying heavily on his wife and others to make his life easy enough to write, they say Emerson’s elevation of the individual to an almost God-like state led to seeing nature itself as ultimately valuable not in itself alone, but as it was spiritually apprehended by an individual. And anything that removes the sacred from the realm of the physical, messy world contributes to paradise being seen as segmented, segregated, inaccessible by all. In much the same way we tend to isolate Nature into wilderness preserves, where only the relative few go, instead of seeking to preserve it and promote it in and through our own yards and homes and lives. And so we do with things of the Spirit too, relegating them only to such things and times as the worship service.
And yet, and yet, again out of the tension with tradition there were others always keeping the ancient view alive and transforming it for their day. Out of 18th and 19th century Calvinism also came the Universalist Christians. Brock and Parker lift up the way these among our religious ancestors saw God’s eternal wholeness where all would be saved in paradise and who therefore sought to make such an emphasis on love and unity real in their churches and communities; no more separation metaphysically meant no more physically; they saw their work as establishing God’s realm here, in the words from Jesus, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. They were often the leaders of social movements in the U.S. For by denying either the very existence of hell, or its being a kind of parallel equivalent of Heaven for all time, Universalists recaptured the first millennium Christian’s focus on peace, justice, equality.
The sense of paradise that shaped the life of Jesus and so many of his followers for so many years, which was lost or nearly so for so many years in the religion that claimed him as its source, but which is still present within it and outside of it while still being endangered within it and outside of it, this sense has been portrayed well in this book. It is a sense, as they call it, of a continuing struggle that calls us to participate. As Parker and Brock write:
“We can come to know the world as paradise when our hearts and souls are reborn through the arduous and tender task of living rightly with one another and the earth…Knowing that paradise is here and now is a gift that comes to those who practice the ethics of paradise. This way of living is not Utopian. It does not spring simply from the imagination of a better world but from a profound embrace of this world. It does not begin with knowledge or hope. It begins with love.
To know paradise in this life is to enter a multidimensional spiritual-material reality…Paradise is simultaneously this earth, a beautiful, luminous creation, and the realm of the dead, which is connected to the living but is separated by a thin veil through which the dead can pass to accompany, bless, or guide the living. Paradise is human life restored to its divinely infused dignity and capacity, and it is a place of struggle with evil and injustice, requiring the development of wisdom, love, nonviolence, and responsible uses of power. Paradise can be experienced as spiritual illumination of the heart, mind, and senses felt in moments of religious ecstacy, and it can be known in ordinary life lived with reverence and responsibility. Paradise is not a place free from suffering or conflict, but it is a place in which Spirit is present and love is possible.
Entering paradise in this life is not an individual achievement but is the gift of communities that train perception and teach ethical grace. Paradise provides deep reservoirs for resistance and joy. It calls us to embrace life’s aching tragedies and persistent beauties, to labor for justice and peace, to honor one another’s dignity, and to root our lives in the soil of this good and difficult earth.”
Thinking and feeling about paradise, I hope, is seen as more than just pondering angels sitting on heads of pins. It was at the heart of my own faith journey, as a 17 year old suffering from the sudden death of a best friend, and wondering “where” is he now, and realizing I couldn’t any longer accept my understanding of the standard Christian teaching that paradise was waiting after life and for some only. Fortunately, just a few years later, I found Unitarian Universalism, and not long after that found real Unitarian Universalists, and a new understanding of Christian faith and a healing openness to matters of the Spirit, including to the mysteries of paradise. Now Brock and Parker have helped remind us that paradise matters, that there are consequences to what we give our faithfulness, and that paradise should not just be a mystery, but a mindfulness, and a mission.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

What I wish I would have remembered to say

Had a great conversation at the UU Ministers Association Minster Day collegial conversations talking about all things organic, emergent, transformative church wise (and the differences between those terms). Those of us who led the conversation were blown away I think by how packed the room was for it.

What I wish I had said that I don't think I did.

That any church, of any size and regardless of how "functional" it is, can "do this." Yes I would like to see all churches periodically review what it would mean if they were just beginning new for the first time. But, any church can go organic by putting time, talent, treasure into something missional that is away from its main church building, that can be given a life of its own. Take your young adults and get a place for them and turn them loose on your community. Or do the same with however small your youth group is--get them out of the church building. Or better yet get a few of your entrepeurial souls and dream up a mission in your community and plant them there with it, relieving them of all kinds of other church responsibilities, including coming back for worship unless they are passing along the miracles they are helping spawn.

Of course if you are a small congregation or big congregation or in between you can do this. In a bit I will focus on how small struggling congregations can go organic. I think there are real possibilities there. Especially those which have buildings just sitting barely used most of the week. And I mean during nighttime as well as daytime. We live in a 24-7 world; all churches need to imagine how their embodiment is existing from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m.

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The Questions I'd Ask (updated)

(for those who have been to this post before, I have updated point number 10: also see related posts here on church planting killers, and on the basics recently posted back in june i think)

If someone is interested in "starting a new church", here are the questions I would ask to help with their discernment, and to pass on to others who will be helping on their team. Not sure they are in any particular order of importance.

1. Is it necessary for you to be paid as a church planter? Can you be bivocational or trivocational? Do you have to be paid right away or how long can you imagine putting it off?
I would encourage not being paid or more than a nominal pro forma bit. It will keep that anxiety out of your system, and the new plant's, and if you are paid by denominational folks and have lots of resources, try to be clear that being paid doesn't equate with quick results that they might have in mind.

2. The classic question: are you "starting" or "planting"? Being organizational or organic?

3. The classic question: are you planting a church or a church that will plant churches?

4. Do you have to think of it as a "church" or can you do what you are intending and think of it as a "mission."?

5. What do you think of when you think about "church"? Does it have to fit a default mode image? Does it have to have worship, for example, and if so, does that worship have to fit a form, and for how long could you plant without worshipping? Would praying, sharing, all as part of relationship work as worship? Could you see fulfilling worship by going as a group to other churches for dynamic worship while you build relationships, discipleship, missionaries?

6. Do you have a team of folks praying regularly with you about the plant, and coaching?

7. Are you ready to do a lot of relationship work right off the bat with your team---personality types, theology, and above all, family systems work and conflict peace-making learning?

8. Can you envision creating a team to help you from the beginning without having to advertise publicly for the team and new members? In fact can you imagine not having "members" and not voting?

9. Do you have your own clear understanding of the DNA, mission, vision, values, and can you express it easily and have a tagline for your plant that is under 8 words and preferrably under 8 syllables? Actually do you have this for yourself and your own life?

10. Do you have a particular local area of the world you want to impact with your planting? Context. Context context and location, location, location. Are you trying to reach everybody? Are you expecting cultural creatives? Those who think they are well off and functional and healthy, or those who know they aren't? Can you bring a global sense to the local? And what is the age of folks who are on your team, or that you are trying to reach? Know generational cultures and how they relate to what people's default modes and expectations of church are. Doesn't mean you have to kick out folks who fall outside a certain age range, but you will need to do some extra work either relating them one to the other or helping people into your own vision. I was just thinking how at the first gathering of the group that is now The Living Room Church and A Third Place Community Center, I was the youngest one there, but now, at 54, five years later, I am usually if not always the oldest one present.

11. Have there been any major life changes or stresses in your life in the past 12 months, or expected to be? deaths, breakups, divorces, births, moving? These will all have huge affects on what you try to do.

12. How comfortable are you with failure and flexibility? Can you and those on your team and those supporting you see the success in certain failures? Can you actually build in failure into your DNA so it will allow you to change and grow as needed?

13. Are you crazy about Jesus and his ways and can't help immersing yourself in them, and making them your story?

14. Are you prepared for miracles and have eyes to see and ears to hear when they happen, and the ability to cast them before others? That will be more important than if you are introvert or extrovert. Though knowing your own story, your own fallibilities and where others are much stronger than you, is invaluable. There is a reason why the early church had some designated in different but equal roles; you don't have to be both main preacher, proclaimer, evangelist, teacher, social justice coordinator, musician, worship arts crafter, relationship builder and maintainer, etc. etc.

15. Can you learn from others? Travel to other new plants in your area or near you or to those you read about? Can you do crash courses in reading and website and online planting learning and yet not fall in love with a model of planting or someone else's experience?

16. Do you have an already existing extended field of family and friends and connections professionally, etc. in the immediate area of your plant?

That will do for now off the cuff and top of my head. Add your own not here.

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