Thursday, December 17, 2009

Garrison Keillor Is no "Companion" for Unitarian Universalists

Many Unitarian Universalists, myself included, are regular NPR listeners.  And among them, many listen regularly to Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion."  It's on weekly at about the time I leave church, so I have listened to it many times.  Garrison Keillor makes a regular practice of poking fun at Unitarian Universalists on his show.  I've often had church members come and tell me he mentioned us again, often with delight, because we're so rarely mentioned in the media.  One example of a Unitarian Universalist joke attributed to Garrison Keillor is: "A sign at the Unitarian church said: Bible study at 7:00. Bring your Bible and a pair of scissors."  So, yes, some of the joke are funny, some point out our foibles and idiosyncrasies.  But lately I've been turning off NPR whenever "A Prairie Home Companion" comes on.  Listening to him talk about us over the years it's becoming more and more evident that he isn't laughing with us--he's laughing at us. 

In a recent article by Garrison Keillor, "Don't Mess with Christmas" at, Keillor stops joking around and comes out swinging at Unitarian Universalists.  (It can also be found under the title "The Christmas Dividend" at the Chicago Tribune in a slightly modified form.  The Salon.Com is the one I'm quoting from, as it is even more offensive than the other.)  It's all right there in the subtitle on "It's a Christian holiday, dammit, and it's plain wrong to rewrite 'Silent Night.' Unitarians, I'm talking to you!"  In the article Keillor attacks intellectuals, Cambridge, First Church of Cambridge (Unitarian), Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Unitarian Universalists.  About Emerson (and of course Emerson was Unitarian) he says:  
You can blame Ralph Waldo Emerson for the brazen foolishness of the elite. He preached here at the First Church of Cambridge, a Unitarian outfit (where I discovered that "Silent Night" has been cleverly rewritten to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God), and Emerson tossed off little bons mots that have been leading people astray ever since. 

About Unitarian Univeralists he says:
Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that's their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite "Silent Night." If you don't believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn "Silent Night" and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough.
And if all that wasn't enough, there's a bit of anti-Semitism thrown in for good measure: "And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck."  Not enough?  He also trashes Pagans: "Christmas is a Christian holiday -- if you're not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don't mess with the Messiah."

Well, Unitarian Universalists have a lot of claim to the holiday he's protecting, of course.  People of our faith wrote the carols "Jingle Bells," "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," and "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."  Unitarian Lydia Marie Child wrote "Over the River and Through the Woods," too.  And, of course, Charles Dickens, who wrote A Christmas Carol, was a Unitarian, and with that publication deeply influenced and even changed Christmas as we--and Keillor--know it. 

Keillor's big complaint is that we change the words to songs in our hymnal, and, in particular, "Silent Night."  The changes that's got him all irate come in the second verse, where we drop the chorus "Christ the savior is born" and repeat the chorus from the first verse, and in the third verse similarly dropping "Jesus, Lord at Thy birth," and changing "son of God" to "child of God."  Now, I don't know what's better about saying "child of God" then "son of God," since I don't think there's any debate that Jesus himself was actually male, granted.  And on Christmas Eve I usually print the more familiar words in our order of service rather than going with our more theologically correct ones.  This is pure practicality.  The one year I didn't do this, I had people singing two sets of words, and it was a big mess.

On the other hand, Keillor is falling prey to a major fallacy that says, "the way I remember things from my own childhood is the way things always have been and always should be."  His personal history has become the authoritative version of what Christmas should be, and what hymns should be.

But, of course, neither Christmas nor hymnody is like that.  It's part of the grand tradition of hymnody that we take old hymn tunes and put new words to them.  For example, take "Onward, Christian Soldiers."  Yes, in our hymnal the tune that many know as "Onward, Christian Soldiers" is set to different words: "Forward Through the Ages."  This hymn tune, St. Gertude, is older than both hymns, and the author of "Onward Christian Soliders" lived from 1834-1924, whereas the author of "Forward through the Ages" lived from 1840-1929.  So the songs are actually both relatively old, and relatively contemporary with each other.  But "Forward through the Ages" is less famous than "Onward, Christian Soliders," so many might mistakenly think that we had just decided to write new words to replace a militaristic song we didn't like.  Another example of the pattern of hymnody is the British patriotic song, "God Save the Queen."  Our American patriotic tune "My Country 'Tis of Thee" is written to the same tune.  There are church hymns written to it as well.  Another example is the old English folk song "Greensleeves" which we sing at Christmas as "What Child Is This?"

Those are examples of putting new songs to old tunes.  Of course, simply changing the words is done quite a bit, as well.  The aforementioned song by Lydia Marie Child is a great example of this.  Some sing it as a Christmas song, some as a Thanksgiving song.  Some sing it as going to Grandmother's house, some as Grandfather's.  The original lyrics might surprise you--they are, in fact, Grandfather and Thanksgiving, not Grandmother and Christmas.  "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" has verses of the original poem dropped and reordered.  "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" probably has a verse dropped in the Lutheran hymnal Keillor sings from (sorry, I don't have a Lutheran hymnal nearby to confirm, but this site skips the pivotal and important third verse).

Now, do I tell any Christians who sing Unitarian and Universalist Christmas carols wrong to get their own holiday?  Do I call it spiritual piracy or cultural elitism?  No, I call it hymnody or the oral tradition.  (But that's probably intellectual elitism for me to say so.)

As for "Silent Night," the original lyrics are in our hymnal: they're in German (well, we only have one verse in German in our hymnal, but it's there).  And the translation most Americans are familiar with isn't a literal translation at all.  We don't have that bit about the baby's curly hair in our words at all.  And there were a few translations before Americans settled on just one as our most dear and familiar.  So changing the words to "Silent Night" is part of a grand tradition that we, as Unitarian Universalists, are continuing. 

Keillor writes, "Christmas does not need any improvements. It is a common ordinary experience that resists brilliant innovation."  Well, if we took away the Pagan "improvements" to Christmas, we'd have to take away his holly and his ivy, and, most importantly, his Christmas tree.  If we took away the Unitarian "improvements" to Christmas, we take away the Christmas turkey, the carols I mentioned above, A Christmas Carol, and the idea of focusing on charity and giving to those less fortunate during the season.  If we take away "improvements" to Christmas that happened during the Victorian age, we take away Christmas cards and Santa Claus, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," and all the eight reindeer.  If we get down to the original American version of Christmas, we wouldn't be celebrating the holiday at all.  The Puritans didn't celebrate it.  His precious "Silent Night"?  An innovation.  Mary didn't sing "Silent Night" at the birth, you know.

Keillor rightfully calls all the trappings of Christmas not what the holiday is really about.  But the song "Silent Night" is just one more of those trappings.  His attachment to his particular set of words for the song isn't about the spirit of the season.  It's about one more chance to attack Unitarian Universalists and other religions.  And I'll tell you what Christmas is not about: this type of religious prejudice.  Peace on Earth, goodwill to all.  This Unitarian Universalist has had enough.  On Sunday afternoons, my radio will get tuned elsewhere.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

December 17th: The Unitarian Christmas Holiday?

Last year I did a series of post about "Chalica," a holiday that's been invented in which Unitarian Universalists may spend the first full week of December reflecting and acting on the seven Principles. Last year I focused on Chalica for the whole week, and I did find that meaningful.

This year, however, I'm focused on a different idea for a Unitarian Holiday. December 17th is the day Unitarian Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol was published. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we all spent every December 17th remembering the Unitarian ideals he brought to Christmas with that publication, and acting in a way consistent with Scrooge's transformation?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

God is Love?

My uncle asks, "If God is love, how does that work?" To elaborate, he means does God still act in people's lives the way God does in the Old Testament? How is a God who is love different from a God who loves? Does it mean God is all kinds of love--eros, agape, etc.--or just some?

Paul Rasor writes in Unitarian Universalist views of God, "Others may use the term God to convey very different ideas, such as the creative power of evolution in the universe, or the power that makes transformation possible in our lives, or the ongoing power of love, or simply the ultimate mystery within which we all must live" (emphasis mine). God, in Rasor's description, is not the God of the Old Testament who acts directly in people's lives, who is a larger-than-human but human-like personality who speaks and makes demands and rewards and punishes. This God who is love is more like a power, as he uses the word in the two preceding phrases about God. God is the power of love, the power that love has in the way that it transforms our lives.

Rev. Kate Braestrup said on Speaking of Faith recently, "If nothing else, and that's a big if, but if nothing else God is that force that drives us to really see each other, and to really behold each other, and care for each other, and respond to each other, and for me that is actually enough." I was very caught by Braestrup's remarks on Speaking of Faith and by her description of God. I'm not going to transcribe it, so I encourage you to listen to it. She talks about how if you base your religion on life, well, you'll be disappointed in the end. We all die. So reverence for life is a path to disappointment. But what's in life that has this amazing transformative power is love.

One important phrase to me about the way I at least try to have faith is the Rev. Theodore Parker's words: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice." Or, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King put it more simply, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

This is something we have no proof of. The arc of the universe may bend towards chaos. It may bend towards annihilation. It may bend towards civil disorder. It may bend towards hate. But this bending towards justice is something I want, something I believe we must have faith in, despite any seeming trend towards its opposite.

Similarly, I believe saying "God is love," is saying, the ultimate force in this universe is the force for good, for love. This means that our inherent nature is loving, that the universe does want to bend towards the good, and that love is stronger than hate. It does not ignore that there is evil in this world, but it says that this goes against the Tao, the way. It goes against God.

"God is love," to me, means that this is what we must strive for, this is how we work to bend the arc. When things are right in the world, there is love. We create God through creating a more loving world around us.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Costs of Becoming a Minister - Part Two, Including a Modest Proposal

In Part One, I left off here: I think the only options that are really viable and just are to either fund our seminarians or ministers better or to decrease our expectations about the seminary process.

Decrease Expectations?

Some people have proposed interesting models of becoming a minister that are not seminary-focused. These are certainly intriguing. As a seminary-trained minister, I see the value in seminary and I am perhaps too invested in this system to step outside of this box adequately. I see our "learned ministry" as an important and defining tradition that is part of our make-up as Unitarian Universalism. It is also in keeping with the denominations that we are closest to. I'm not quite willing to drop seminary altogether. However, there are some interesting proposals about modifying the process. Here's mine.

Shortening seminary is entirely doable. A four-year process to become a minister does seem a bit outrageous. What about a one-year process of essential courses, during which the career assessment is done, followed by a three-month summer CPE and 9-month paid internship and seeing the MFC or RSCC at the end. With one year of seminary expenses, and one year of debt load, the new minister is in preliminary fellowship. The first year would be much of what is the required coursework now: pastoral care, preaching, and UU history and polity would certainly be included. This allows the minister to be in a congregation with a mentor minister and the preliminary fellowship review process in place. The first ministry position would be a two or three-year hired-not-called preliminary position, probably in a smaller church or an association position. Churches taking preliminary fellowship ministers would know that this is the duration of the position (but there could be an option to call the minister at the end).

During preliminary fellowship, rather than just saying what the minister is intending to improve upon, the minister is actually required to take additional courses, which would be readily available as on-line courses or intensive one-week courses. The UUA could provide stipends for these courses to the new ministers. There would be one course per semester or quarter, and therefore three years of this would about equal one year of seminary. Among these classes would be more on church administration, theology, world religions, ethics. Churches taking ministers in preliminary fellowship would know that this was part of the minister's work-load, and adjust expectations to it, and maybe compensation would be decreased accordingly, paying even as low as $25,000 but also paying the part of tuition that the UUA is not paying. Thus the minister has tuition on these classes paid and is making a minimal income. This would be attractive to congregations struggling to pay for full-time ministry, who often have, by default, a series of starting ministers for short tenures. This would institutionalize that and give these congregations a sense of their role in the formation of ministers. And the load for ministers would not be unlike doing a D.Min. during full-time ministry. It's doable. I've been doing full-time ministry and teaching one class adjunct to make ends meet, and teaching one class is at least as much work as taking one class. These three years could also be framed as part of an educational process, allowing student loans to be deferred for the three years.

At the end of three years, five years after starting seminary, the minister is reviewed by the MFC, with an interview that looks much like our current MFC interview. The MFC can give the minister the all-clear to pursue called ministry or can require more work of them. If requiring more work, the minister's current congregation could keep the minister on, or the minister could move to another short-term congregation. In extreme situations, another internship, full-time seminary year, or CPE could be required at this point. More ministers might "fail" the process than currently fail the MFC process, but not more than drop out of seminary, and they would be failing with less debt load, albeit a year later than many see the MFC. The yearly evaluations, however, would give ministers a sense of what to expect at the MFC.

The danger of such a model is the danger that exists when we put fewer controls on our ministerial formation process--that unfit ministers could be serving congregations and doing a lot of damage. This still happens in our current process, of course. This would be lessened by having a process in the first years of ministry that is much more watchful than ours is now, where one graduates seminary, has yearly evaluations and regular conversations with a mentor, but where one is otherwise left alone. During the preliminary fellowship time, a minister would be, therefore, viewed by both congregation and UUA as not really a full minister yet, and this would be more appropriate. It would clear up the problems we have now where the preliminary fellowship process puts congregation and minister in a relationship that is not really appropriate to a minister who has gone through a four-year degree and is now a called minister. The preliminary fellowship process, which requires a board evaluation, makes it feel to the board and the minister like the minister is an employee of the board. In this new scenario, the minister would be an employee-hired and not called, and it would be clear why this is the case.

There are other models, of course, for decreasing the expectations of seminary. This is mine, because I think there are problems with the other suggestions I've seen. I'm not going to go into all of them here.

Increase Funding

Unless the model is drastically changed, such as above, I believe the only other option is to increase funding. Period. This can be done a number of ways. A lot of people favor funding the ministers rather than the seminarians, because then we're not paying for all the people who drop out along the way. This is pretty reasonable. It's akin to proposals where people, like doctors, go to work in under-served areas and their student loans are paid off over time. Even if model for ministerial formation is drastically changed, one must remember, we still have the problem of the current and past graduates who have lots of seminary debt. It would be good to see something beyond what the Living Tradition Fund grants currently are for those ministers with high debt and low income. It's good that there's some funds there, but it's not nearly adequate to what our ministers are facing.

Costs of Becoming a Minister - Part One

A number of UU bloggers have been taking on the issue of the cost of becoming a UU minister. To see some of that discussion, check out PolityWonk, Elizabeth's Little Blog, iMinister, the Interdependent Web, Planting God Communities, Rev. Scott Wells... iMinister, in particular, has been doing a number of blog posts looking at every angle.

In a previous post I outlined the process for becoming a UU minister. The issue is that this standard process is too expensive, given the wages that many UU ministers will make, particularly in smaller churches, which we have a lot of in the UUA. (For full-time ministers, which right there is an assumption, the range starts at 37,600.)

The cost of seminary is around $15,000 per year for tuition alone, and then books and whatnot, until you're looking at a cost of around $35,000 for the year. Remember that four main choices for seminary for UUs are Andover Newton, Harvard, Meadville Lombard, and Starr King. They are in the Boston area, Boston area, Chicago, and Berekely -- not low cost-of-living areas where rent is cheap. Part-time jobs can whittle away at that, but not substantially. As I detailed in my post about the ministerial formation process, there's precious little time for part-time jobs with the whole secondary issue of constant applications during seminary.

Thus if you figure that for the four-year degree you might take out three years of loans (managing to live on the maybe $1500/month during your internship that the internship congregation provides), that might easily be a debt load of $90,000. If you have a debt load of $50,000 that you're paying off on a ten year plan at 8%, according to the UUA document linked to above, your payment will be $606. That's $7272 per year, a hard load for a new minister. Obviously if your debt load is more like $90,000 that's going to be more. If you add together the payments for the $40,000 and $50,000 loans, that's a payment of $1091 per month, or $13,092 per year. Subtract that from the lowest ministerial position and you're left with $24,518 to live on. Good news: that's slightly more than the 200% of the Federal Poverty Level that many agencies use as the cut-off for assistance... if the minister has no dependents.

But, you say there are options other than taking out the loans. Yes, there are:
  • The slow route to ministry: Going to school part-time while you work full-time
  • The superhero route to ministry: Working full-time while being a full-time student
  • The rich route to ministry: Having enough money from other sources that you don't need to take out loans.
It's also possible, of course, to choose a cheaper seminary and lower costs that way. I can't argue with that. However, I think we need to make it possible for a UU minister-to-be without independent means to attend a UU seminary and graduate with a liveable debt load.

And, of course, a fair number of ministers will go into churches that are paying more than the minimum. Smaller churches in areas with better costs of living will pay more, but the costs of living will be higher, too. And many ministers go directly into larger churches. But there are also many ministers who will start at the bottom. Something tells me that those ministers who are in the "rich route to ministry" are not all taking the lowest-paying churches.

So you get to this issue of ministers with incredible debt loads. And basically the system needs to change. This is not a good situation to have ministers with this level of debt making these wages. It produces a high level of anxiety in the minsters, for one.

What to do now? Again, there are some options:
  • Make the slow route more standard.
  • Make on-line courses more available, thus lowering the need to relocate to highly expensive areas. Note: this does not necessarily lower the cost of seminary, except for relocation issues. There is often an underlying assumption that on-line courses make it available for the seminarian to continue in a pre-seminary job while completing seminary. In essence, this is a variation on the slow route.
  • Require students to have money to become a UU minister. Couch it in politically correct terms that make it look like you're concerned about the minister and like it isn't classism. (Ouch! Did I say that? Yes I did.)
  • Lower the cost of seminary, or at least our UU seminaries since we can't control the others. (But even so, there's still living costs.) This would require our UU seminaries being more funded by the UUA, which arguably they should be because they're our institutions. (I do think we should be funding them more. Period. There's exactly one UU library that I know of in this country. It's at Meadville Lombard. It is a valuable resource for our denomination. And it's at risk right now. Meadville Lombard is selling its building and has a future uncertain. If you care about our history and our future, care about this.)
  • Lower the cost of seminary through requiring less of it--a two full academic years plus one year of internship? The arguments I see for decreasing seminary time are mostly arguing three years and the internship is separate from the seminary process. Folks, this doesn't change the amount of time spent, it just shuffles it around. Two academic years' worth of classes would be a decrease. It could be done over three years with part-time internships, but only if all the neighboring churches around a seminary take in the interns or if the classes are electronic.
  • Provide more funding for seminarians from the UUA.
  • Provide more funding for seminarians from individual congregations (in congregational polity, such as we have, this would be difficult to mandate).
  • Provide more money for ministers after graduation to pay back loans from the UUA.
  • Require the minimum salaries to be higher (probably would just result in more part-time ministries and under-served congregations, and be detrimental to our movement, but an impoverished ministry is also hurting our movement in ways not fully understood).
  • Assume a bi-vocational ministry as more standard (pass the buck! have other companies help pay off ministerial debts!)
While I think that adequately funding our UU theological schools is a denominational imperative, it is somewhat aside from this issue, as only about a third of all UU students attend our UU seminaries, so the problem of debt load would still be in existence. Although it is arguable that if UU seminaries were among the cheapest for UU students to attend they would be better attended. While at Meadville Lombard and at Starr King I saw UU students attending the other ACTS and GTU seminaries in order to get a lower tuition rate and still have access to the UU classes and resources of our UU seminaries. In some cases, they would transfer to the UU seminary in the last year or two in order to have their degree be from the UU school. The reason that these other seminaries, located in the same city, are cheaper are varied, but one major reason is that they are better funded by their denominations. And seminarians in process with other denominations are better funded, as well, it seemed, as I saw some seminarians go through the motions of being in other denominations until they switched over to UU and let their funding go.

I think the only options that are really viable and just are to either fund our seminarians or ministers better or to decrease our expectations about the seminary process. I'll pick up there next.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Here's what I shared at the interfaith Thanksgiving Eve service in Jackson...

In Unitarian Universalism, we’re a blend of loving and embracing tradition, coming out of an American Christian tradition, and a blend of beliefs from different world religions, cultures, and some we’ve come up with on our own. When it comes time for the holidays, therefore, we balance doing the traditional, customary American and Christian rituals with bringing in new ideas, older ideas from other places, and, always, a focus on justice. Thanksgiving is a time when we celebrate togetherness and thankfulness and abundance, but also mourn the brokenness, the brokenness of our connection to the earth, the brokenness of peace, the brokenness of our relationship to the First Nations people on whose land we stand.

I want to share with you a short reading from my colleague the Rev. Chris Buice. He speaks humorously about the dilemma we in a pluralistic faith encounter. He writes:

(See his words here.)

His question of who or what do I give thanks to is not one I can answer. I don’t direct my thanks to another entity. I am simply thankful, grateful for what I have received. And I remember that gifts have to keep moving—if you save it, store it, lock it up, it ceases to be a gift in your life. So I believe when we are grateful, we must pass on our blessings.

I want to conclude my words with a prayer that was sent to me by the Unitarian Universalist campaign for justice called “Standing on the Side of Love.”

(Sorry, folks, I couldn't find the prayer to link to directly, and didn't want to repost without permission.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ministerial Formation

There's a discussion going on in the blogosphere about the costs of ministerial formation, and I was going to jump right in, but realized it's hard to do so without first describing what goes into becoming a minister in our denomination. So this is a description of that process. The UUA describes the process here. I'll go into some detail in a way that will hopefully be shorter and easier to follow. I may mix things up a bit, because the process has substantially changed since I went through it. You go through three stages with the UUA in becoming a UU minister: Applicant, Aspirant, and Candidate.

As an applicant, one applies to the UUA to be in the process of becoming a minister, and starts theological school. UU ministers may attend any accredited theological school. I went to one of the two UU schools: Meadville Lombard Theological School. The standard path to becoming a UU minister right now is a four-year process, although some manage to do it faster and some take longer. This involves three years of theological school, which is a graduate degree program, and a year of internship, and a semester of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), which is a pastoral training program that is usually in a hospital setting, although there are other settings. Aspirants are eligible for $1000 in aid from the UUA. The CPE program that I went to cost about $500. One also had to go through a formal career assessment from a specifically approved center before being a candidate. That was, when I did it, a three-day session of group discussions and taking a battery of psychological exams. The result is a long report from the center assessing one's psychological fitness for ministry.

Becoming a candidate opens the ministerial student up to more scholarships from the UUA, although they are not terribly substantial. Also in candidate status one can, and should, join the UUMA (the minister's association). To become a candidate, the major things one needs to do are to complete a year of theological school and be approved by a Regional SubCommittee (RSCC) of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC). In every year of the process, the average ministerial student is not only doing the work of seminary or internship, he or she is also compiling a bunch of paperwork. In this first year, to become a candidate, that includes applying to see the RSCC, getting letters of recommendation from the required sources, writing a sort of "why I want to be a UU minister" essay, signing a statement of disclosure about any criminal history, and completing a financial planning worksheet. One is also probably applying to do the CPE program in the summer following the first year, if the usual pattern from my theological school days holds true. That CPE application in itself is a monster, asking for a complete personal biography; four other long, in-depth essay questions, a resume, and more.

In the second year, having gotten a green light from the RSCC, a candidate continues theological school, hopefully now with a little more (maybe a thousand or two) in financial aid. This year in the model I was in during theological school, one typically applies for a year-long internship to be held in one's third year. Candidate status is required for the internship, and having completed CPE is usually encouraged.

Following internship, the ministerial student prepares to see the MFC. A final evaluation of the internship is required to see the MFC, and passing the MFC is required to go into search for a job, so the timeline is tight to try to see the MFC in the fall to be cleared while the search process that begins in the fall is still young. The paperwork for the MFC is, therefore, being worked on during this third internship year. That includes the internship evaluation, the CPE evaluation, sponsorship from a UU congregation, a biographical form, five letters of recommendation, completing a reading list, and filling out a long form (at least this is what I had to do) about one's competency in various areas of ministry, such as worship, religious education, UU history, pastoral care, theology, anti-racism, etc.

Let me just say that one cannot start the reading list too soon.

The fourth year of seminary, if one sees the MFC in the beginning of that year, is spent finishing seminary and applying for ministry positions.

What should be plain from this description is that the life of a seminarian is one of not only full-time theological school, but also one where there is a whole extra level of work required by the formation process. And this is probably as it should be for a number of reasons. However, we also do not fund our theological students very well, leaving them with three years worth of graduate school debt. Government grants are not available for theological school students, although loans are, so other than what individual congregations give (which is not very common) and the small amount from the UUA, the rest is usually paid for in three ways--from a student's prior accumulation of wealth, if applicable; from part-time jobs, if possible; and from student loans.

During my second year of ministry I tried to hold down three part-time jobs in an effort to keep my debt load down. I did manage to go a whole semester without taking out student loans. The result was that I was sick for most of the semester, as well. My physical health paid the price for that increased level of stress.

The result of all of this is that many ministers graduate with the level of debt that our doctors graduate with, and make the salaries our teachers make.

More on this and on what can be done next time.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Reimagining GA

A popular UU blogger asked recently on Facebook what we think of this preliminary and much-changed GA schedule. Some of the reasons for the changes are explained by the fact that they are working towards some goals outlined in this document from the Fifth Principle Task Force. Here's my response, which I posted on Facebook.

I think the advantages of this schedule are outweighed by the disadvantages. The main advantages I see is that people who are not delegates can leave early and people who are only focused on business can arrive late if they have no pre-GA events to attend. Also, if you're primarily focused on either workshops or plenaries you have big blocks you're not focused on where you can skip out to go sight-seeing.

Disadvantages: ***People really do start leaving early by the droves on Sunday. They have to get to work on Monday, and their flight leaves early, etc. You're going to lose huge amounts of involvement in the plenary Sunday afternoon. Also, I think this model really invites burnout. That Sunday plenary schedule is going to leave people burned out in their interest levels and dropping like flies. The break schedule is also not adequate. If people go to the Sunday morning worship, they have to have breakfasted around eight, and then they don't get to break for lunch until 1. It needs to be around noon. I also worry that the drop we've seen in the Living Tradition Fund and the drop in attendance after moving the Service of the Living Tradition to Friday will be made worse if a substantial percentage don't arrive until the business part of GA starts.

I like the goals of moving to an every-other-year GA, making GA smaller (and thereby more affordable), and making it more possible for people to vote electronically from far distances. If this gets us there, then I'll willingly (and hopefully cheerfully) go through the awkward interim stages towards that goal. If it doesn't, however, I think this has more problems than solutions.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The column "Annie's Mailbox" appears in our daily paper, and the column yesterday got me irritated enough to write a response.

Dear Annie,
I usually enjoy your column, but you missed the mark in your 11/18 column in two very significant ways.
First, your advice to "Frustrated" urged a parent to talk first to the teacher. I agree. The problem comes with your next piece of advice, which was that this was an opportunity for the son to learn how to deal with difficult people. Annie, the letter said the teacher "is mean and degrading and belittles the children on a daily basis." She also said, the children "are tormented each day." While this may be hyperbole, it's possible it's true. And if it is true, it is absolutely unacceptable, and she needs to remove her child from that atmosphere immediately. Too often we let things that are outrageous pass because they are done by authority figures. Being in a position of authority does not make tormenting children acceptable. No child should be subjected to this treatment.
Secondly, your advice to "Husband of a Sudden Bisexual" included this statement: "If your wife is bisexual, your marriage may not be reconcilable." While it is probable that this marriage is not reconcilable, the problem isn't bisexuality, per se, and your answer reinforces a false stereotype that says bisexuals are inherently promiscuous and can't be monogamous just because they're attracted to people of both sexes. To the contrary, bisexuals absolutely can be in faithful, committed monogamous relationships. Please be more careful about spreading these stereotypes about bisexuals! The Husband of a Sudden Bisexual's problem that may make the marriage irreconcilable is his wife's desire, which is she is acting on, to have sex with other people. The sex of the people she is having it with is immaterial.
Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Landrum

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Spiral Dynamics

So right now I'm struggling with the concept of Spiral Dynamics. I've encountered this before, but it's interesting to right now consider how it applies to ministry and our movement. Look at Table 1 in this paper for more information. What meme/worldview do you see Unitarian Universalism as operating from? Where do you see yourself? Where do you see your congregation? What are the limitations of the worldview from which you operate?
Meme 1 - Beige: SurvivalSense - survival, protection
Meme 2 - Purple: KinSpirits - tribalistic
Meme 3 - Red: PowerGods - Power, ego
Meme 4 - Blue: TruthForce - Authority, one right answer
Meme 5 - Orange: StriveDrive - Success
Meme 6 - Green: HumanBond - caring, community
Meme 7 - Yellow: FlexFlow - flexability, adaptability
Meme 8 - Turquoise: WholeView - spirituality, wholeness
(And do be polite in your response, even if you struggle with another's worldview.)

Music to My Soul

Today is my last morning at the UUMA Convocation in Ottawa. This morning Meg Barnhouse provided worship. Her song "All Will Be Well," in which she struggles with the words of Julian of Norwich, was amazing. Her storytelling was intimate and funny and deep with meaning as well. What a joy.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Smallest Thing - It All Comes Together

The other day in a workshop on environmentalism, we heard about how people feel confronted by the overwhelming amount of what needs to be done, so they push it all away and do nothing.

Last night our UUA president was talking about how UUism can become more ethnically and racially diverse. He said that we don't get from here, where we are, to there, the true reflection of the diversity of the world, in one step. What we need to do is take the first step, perhaps the easiest step or perhaps the hardest.

Today Thomas Moore is talking about where we start in soul work, and he said something similar. We need to whittle it down to the smallest thing, the smallest change we can make. That's the change we need to make. That's a big challenge.

All too often in our lives we avoid doing anything because the task is too large. The truth is we need to take the small step. Letting ourselves be overwhelmed by the big picture gives us the luxury to not act at all. What we need to do is much harder: take the small step.

Strangely enough, this also relates to what I tell me English composition students. Too often they try to tackle a big subject, particularly in descriptive papers, and what I get is a shallow analysis. What is much more powerful is to take the small subject, and then really do it justice.

It all comes together to this: find the smallest step towards your soul, towards justice, towards your vocation, and take it.

The Way of Emptiness

Thomas Moore began his lecture at the UUMA Convo in Ottawa today with a story about emptiness. Nazruddin went to preach to a group of people, and when he got there he asked, "How many of you have heard me preach before?" The excited group of fans all raised their hands. He said, "Very good. You've heard me before, and so you already know what I would say." And he left. The next day he came back and asked the group, "How many of you have heard me preach before?" They'd learned their lesson, so none raised their hands. Then he said, "Well, if you've never heard me preach before, you won't understand what I was going to say." And he left. The next day he came back and asked, "How many of you have heard me preach before?" This time the confused crowd was split, and half raised their hands and half didn't. Nazruddin said, "Good. Those of you who heard me preach before, explain what I said to those who haven't." And he left.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Canadian Concert

Today we had a real treat at the UUMA Convocation. There was a concert of great Canadian performers. I didn't stay until the end, but I think I caught the real highlight: two Inuit throat singers, Becky and Kendra. They did a wonderful job explaining how Inuit throat singing is done in pairs with one person leading and the other person following, copying. It's a contest to see who can make the other person laugh, so it always ends in laughter. (Here's a link to a page with a video of throat singing, and I think it's the two of them. Sorry I couldn't embed it.) They performed a number of songs, explaining each one, and then had all of us try throat singing. If you can imagine a hall full of Unitarian Universalist ministers, paired into two teams, throat singing and trying to make the other team laugh, well, you're likely to laugh yourself at the image. But even funnier was the sight of UU ministers trying to do the dance... Now that I wish I had the video of to share with you. While there's a great deal of humor in it, and it's wonderful to see a cultural practice so full of joy like the Inuit throat singing, there's also beauty, grace, talent, and a deep and rich history. We were priviledged to have Becky and Kendra share such talent with us.

International Perspective

Here at UUMA Convocation 2009 in Ottawa, we are, necessarily, more aware of our international relations with other Unitarian and Universalist associations. The UUMA is our professional association for ministers serving or affiliated with UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) congregations, but also for ministers serving or affiliated with CUC (Candadian Unitarian Council) churches. We are not, here, the ministers of one religious organization.

At the ICUU (International Council of Unitarians and Universalists) workshop this afternoon, the point was really brought home that Unitarian Universalism is not a global religion. To paraphrase the ICUU president, we (the association of churches that is the UUA) are a global collection of religions that express liberal religion.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thomas Moore vs. the New Atheists? Buy Me Tickets!

So I'm here at the UUMA Convocation, and the keynote speaker this morning was Thomas Moore.

What I took from what Thomas Moore shared with us is that there is a divorce in American culture between science and religion, which is the split between mind/intellect and soul. There's nothing surprising in that idea, of course. But Thomas Moore put it simply pointedly, saying (or this is my interpretation of what he said) that most people stop developing their idea of God as children, and the ideas of God put out there the most in our culture are essentially the God we learn at age 6 or 7. Now, reflecting a bit on what he said, imagine if you stopped your understanding of what math is or literature is or science is or medicine is at age 6 or 7. Why do we think that this childhood idea of God is sufficient? My own question is why do even ministers support, uphold, even preach this childish idea of God?

One question that was put to Thomas Moore in the question and answer time was about the New Atheists. People have probably heard me rant about the "New Atheists" before, as I beleive that they misrepresent or ignore the existence of liberal religion. Well, Thomas Moore said something very similar, which is that they haven't debated a worthy opponent. They only set up the straw man of fundamentalism and then knock it down. He suggested Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, as a more worthy opponent. But then, he said, atheism would just melt into God. Moore also suggested he'd be willing to debate them. Now that's a discussion I'd like to see!

Convo Stories

Here at the UUMA Convocation in Ottawa, Ontario, a continent-wide gathering of Unitarian Universalist ministers. The last Convo was in 2002 in Birmingham, AL, so it's been seven years since we've had this meeting. Our keynote lecture is from Thomas Moore.

Thomas Moore began our lecture today with a Sufi story: Nazruddin asked a couple of men, what do you want people to say about you when you're lying there in the coffin and people are talking about you. The first one said he wanted to remembered as a good man. The second one wanted to be remembered as someone with a big heart. Then they asked Nazruddin what he wanted them to say about him. Nazruddin said, "I'd like them to look at me and say, 'Look! He's moving!'"

Great story. Of course, Thomas Moore tells it better.

Friday, November 6, 2009

To Maine, with Love

Today in the English composition class I teach, we studied Frederick Douglass's 1852 speech, "What, to a Slave, is the Fourth of July?" In it he says he is not going to make an argument, which he proceeds to make:
Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it.
and then:
Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it.
and then:
What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman cannot be divine. Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may - I cannot. The time for such argument is past.
After the vote in Maine this week, I ask:

Would you have me argue that gay and lesbians are people? That their families are families? That their partnerships are true marriages? That their love is love?
Would you have me argue that people are entitled to love whom they love? That they are the rightful deciders of whom they shall spend their lives with?
What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that hate is not divine, that God does not hate? That whis is not love cannot be of God. Who can reason on such a proposition? The time for such argument is past.

Now I do believe we should stand with Bishop John Shelby Spong, who said:

Inequality for gay and lesbian people is no longer a debatable issue in either church or state. Therefore, I will from this moment on refuse to dignify the continued public expression of ignorant prejudice by engaging it. I do not tolerate racism or sexism any longer. From this moment on, I will no longer tolerate our culture's various forms of homophobia. I do not care who it is who articulates these attitudes or who tries to make them sound holy with religious jargon.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Prayer

I was asked to give the prayer at the Jackson Democratic Party's annual dinner tonight. What follows is the prayer I gave.

We all pray in different ways, and we often use different words for God—God, Yahweh, Allah, and some of us pray to the Goddess, or to others, and some of us don't pray at all. But here, in this place, we all join in united hope for the needs of the people of our region, and of all of Michigan, this country, and this world, so please join with me in bowing heads or holding hands.

Spirit of Life:

Today, in this hall, we pray for the people of Michigan, this country, and the world. We pray especially for the people of this state of Michigan, whom we are all called to serve in different ways. We pray especially for those among us who are called to service in our government, that they might find the strength, throughout all the pressures they face, to follow their conscience. And we pray for Democrats and Republicans, for the rich and the poor, for gay and for straight. We pray for all races and religions, and those with no religion. We pray for the first nations people on whose land we are privileged to stand. We pray for voters and for candidates, that their minds may hear the calls of justice, and their hearts may hear the calls of compassion. We pray that those who we choose on election day to lead us will be those who can hear the voices of those struggling in our community, for jobs, for healthcare, for education.

A very wise man once told a story about a stranger, beaten, robbed, and left wounded and alone on the side of the road, and about people who passed him by without helping, and then one who did. That wise man asked those who listened to his story, who was this man’s neighbor? That man, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth, called the Messiah, and the message from that story that has lived for centuries is that we are all neighbors—not just to the person sitting next to us, with whom we might agree, but to all the citizens of our city, our state, our country, our world.

There’s a story about another wise man, one who was raised in privilege, raised to be a prince, protected from all the troubles of the world, until he went out one day and saw the suffering of the people outside the palace gates. That man left the privilege of the palace to go and seek the answers to suffering. That man, who was Siddharta Gautama, called the Buddha, and he, too, taught us about the importance of paying attention to the suffering of others, and dedicating our lives to ending suffering.

Gathered here this evening, we are united in our desire to become better neighbors to one another. We are united in our desire to end suffering. We are a people united in a common goal: to create a strong and thriving community. May we be true today to our highest callings.

Blessed be, Ashe, Shalom, and Amen

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Technology and Our Faith

Thinking about the openness of our faith to many sources, and the way we use technology, I ran across this video of the Rev. Christine Robinson talking about open source technology and our faith, and our faith as an open source faith. Very cool. I think this should be a starting point from which we talk about technology and our faith.

*Note to readers of this blog on facebook: videos may not come through to facebook. To view the original post, go to

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Episcopal Bishop and well-known theologian John Shelby Spong issued a "Manifesto" last week, in which he said, "I have made a decision. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone. I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility."

I admire this stance, and am very glad he has taken it. However, I disagree very much with his reasoning: "I make these statements because it is time to move on. The battle is over. The victory has been won. There is no reasonable doubt as to what the final outcome of this struggle will be."

I very much believe that the arc of the universe bends towards justice, and that this is what the final outcome will be. However, I don't think that victory has already been won. That may sound a little like predestination for some, that the victory will ultimately be for good, but that the battle isn't won. Perhaps there is a little predestination in my faith, in the belief that good will ultimately triumph, even when we're in the midst of the darkest night.

And I think that we're not exactly in the darkest night on this issue any more, it's true. There is a way in which we can see victory more clearly now. But we haven't come so far, in my opinion, that there's only one possible end to all of this.

And while I don't believe most hearts are turned by argument and debate, and a lot of people are so entrenched in their positions that they may never be changed, I do still think there are a lot of individuals out there who can be swayed by a clear understanding of how the scriptures have been used and misused on this issue, what the science is, and a message about "Standing on the Side of Love."

But I suspect there is a difference between what I am called to do, which is to argue with individuals, and what Spong is talking about, where he has been called to be on panels where his view and those of hate are paired as if they are "equal." Does having balanced, unbiased approaches to things mean, for example, that we must balance all good with evil, in order to not be biased?

For example, our Community Forum is done in partnership with the library. The library has to, as part of their mission, present both sides of issues. I have said that while I believe all attendees should be free to express their opinions, I don't believe that all issues have two sides, and I'm not willing for us to give all sides of all issues equal weight, when we, as Unitarian Universalists, have a clear moral stance on an issue. My two main examples of this are that I'm not going to do a forum on the Holocaust and give any weight or any space on the panel to Holocaust deniers. As Spong says, "I do not debate any longer with members of the 'Flat Earth Society' either." And I don't debate with Holocaust deniers, because there is a clear truth that they stand in opposition to for reasons of hate, and to give them equal voice is destructive and harmful. (Just to be clear, no one on our committee has ever suggested that we do a panel discussion with Holocaust deniers--this is just an example.) The other example, however, that I have used in terms of talking about what I am unwilling for us, as a religious body, to do, is hold a forum in which we put gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer or questioning (LGBTIQ) people on a panel with those who are going to use words which are insulting, derogatory, or otherwise painful in their descriptions or labeling of LGBTIQ people. We've come close, and I've come close, with talking about panels on same-sex marriage which might include people from both sides of the marriage debate, but so far we haven't done such a panel. And, as I reflect on it, it may be wrong to consider doing a panel. It's one thing to allow everyone in the audience to have their questions and their doubts and their prejudices, and to try to educate, inform, and challenge those assumptions. It's quite another to risk our religious authority by giving a platform for hate.

It is so clear to me that I will not engage in a debate about whether or not the Holocaust exists. It's ridiculous to believe it doesn't, and to even suggest it might be debatable is profoundly wrong. Do I then need to say, along with Spong, "It is time for the media to announce that there are no longer two sides to the issue of full humanity for gay and lesbian people. There is no way that justice for homosexual people can be compromised any longer." I believe the answer is yes, that it is wrong to suggest lend any credence to a perspective that disregards the full humanity of LGBTIQ people by agreeing to debate that question in public forums. And, on the other hand, I think that having such a debate can still open some people's minds. Whereas the population is largely united on belief in the Holocaust, we haven't come that far on issues of LGBTIQ justice yet.

So, I'm torn. I'm thinking about it. Spong says, "I invite others to join me in this public declaration."

Maybe I will soon. Help push me there.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Social Media - Uses in Ministry

Some thoughts on the new social media, as I'm wool-gathering this morning: In the last year and a half, I've started writing/using a blog, Twitter, and Facebook. I've also created a Facebook fan page for my church. Right now these things are all interwoven, and I see each as enhancing my ministry in different ways.


My blog is a public site, with no hidden posts, so it's entirely open to the public. My blog is That might seem pretty obvious to the people who read it directly from my blog, but I also have the blog posting automatically to the church's Facebook fan page, and people comment on it there more than they do back at the home site. I sometimes also let it post to my personal Facebook page. Since in both places it comes through as Facebook "notes," it's not always apparent to people who read it there that it's really the blog from Having the blog post to Facebook has probably tripled its readership at least. Now that the blog comes to the church's Facebook page, I find that many of my church members are reading it and commenting on it, whereas I've had only a couple of comments directly on the blog from church members. The interweaving of the social media, therefore, seems to be what makes each most effective.

How does having a blog serve my ministry? Having a blog is a way for me to write more extensively on issues that concern me as a minister but which are not things either large enough, broad enough, or otherwise appropriate as sermon material. I tend to get more political on the blog than I do in the pulpit. My sermon topics are also often set pretty far in advance, and the blog lets me respond to things quickly that are happening.


My facebook page is not open to the general public. A lot of ministers do different things here, but I've gone with a policy of "friending" members of my church, but not friending members of other UU churches, unless they are someone who I have a personal (not solely virtual) connection with as a friend from before I became a minister, or, in a few cases, because they serve in some other district or denominational offices where I find it handy to be in connection with them on Facebook. (I also generally have a rule of not friending people who I don't know personally in real life.) It's hard, once you open the doors, to have hard and fast rules here. But I have started doing some things like moving UUs who I am Facebook friends with who are not members of my congregation, or personal friends or relatives, into a category where what they will see from me on Facebook is those Twitter posts that I put through to Facebook, and little else. My logic is that my Twitter site, like my blog, is a public site that anyone can view.

My Facebook account is a place where I do connect to family and friends, but I also have a lot of church members and colleagues I connect to there. So I post fairly regularly to Facebook, and I'll get a little personal about things that are going on with me, posting about my family and how I'm feeling that day, but I try to remember that while I do limit my audience there somewhat, it's still a pretty public place.

Since I have so many people as Facebook friends, however, if you happen to read this, please know that I may not see all of your posts. It would take me too long each day to scroll through everything everyone puts out there, even after I've told it to hide all your Mafia Wars information and the quizzes you've taken. I can't see, let alone respond, to everything that's put out on Facebook. If you really want me to know something, tell me more directly. Putting something out on Facebook is like saying something at a crowded party--you can't assume everyone present heard you say it, yet you shouldn't say anything you don't want repeated to everyone.

Church Facebook Fan Page

My church is on Facebook with a fan page, as well. It's an "unofficial" page of the church, so that the church doesn't accept any direct responsibility for its content. I'm an admin on the page, as well as a few other church members. Right now, "fans" of the page can post comments on the posts on the wall, and becoming a fan the page is open to anyone, so it's a very public page. If that starts becoming problematic, we'll reassess how the permissions for the page are set. The nice thing about a Facebook page, as opposed to a group, is that the status updates come through on people's "newsfeed."

I use the church's facebook page about weekly to post short reminders about events at the church. I hope that this is helping to keep people informed about what's going on at church. There are some people who follow the church's Facebook page who are very irregular church attenders, and some who have never attended, so I hope the Facebook page is letting them know about events they might be interested in that they might not otherwise hear about if they don't open their newsletter.


I twitter at Well, that is to say, I occasionally twitter. I often go weeks without posting directly to Twitter. But I have the church's Facebook page automatically posting all its posts to Twitter, as well, so there's fairly regular information on the Twitter account about what's going on at the church. I've thought about just setting up a Twitter account for the church, rather than for myself, but I would have to use another e-mail address for it, so that seems to be difficult to do at the moment. My Twitter account is an open, unlocked account that anyone can subscribe to. Right now it has 56 followers, but I haven't reviewed the list recently to kick out the followers who seem to follow whatever Twitter accounts they can find to promote products or pornography. I do kick those off my followers list periodically.

I haven't found Twitter to be all that useful a medium, with only a few exceptions. I did not attend the UUA's General Assembly this year, but I did watch a lot of it through the live broadcasts. While I did this, I kept Twitter open and followed and posted comments with the appropriate # sign, and this helped me to feel like I was really there at GA. For the first time, I really saw what the use of a Twitter account could be. On the other hand, there were times it was a little like flying blind, as I did find that I responded to comments of other Twitterers without hearing the original content they were Twittering about at least once. I'll also use Twitter occasionally to post on more ministry or UU-related topics that are not long enough for blog posts, but that I want to say more publicly than on Facebook.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Peace Prize

So Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize, and arguments broke out immediately across America. The comments that made me the saddest today were from Rush Limbaugh: "And with this 'award' the elites of the world are urging Obama, THE MAN OF PEACE, to not do the surge in Afghanistan, not take action against Iran and its nuclear program and to basically continue his intentions to emasculate the United States."

As I've thought about this over the day, listening to different takes on the issue, what it comes down to for me is something a colleague said, which reminded me that Obama is creating a paradigm shift in America and in the world, and that this is putting us on a path towards peace. No, peace isn't achieved yet; that's not the point.

Part of what this paradigm shift is about is getting the American people to wake up to our role in creating a world of peace--individually. Here's some of Obama's words from his acceptance speech:
I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.
this prize reflects the kind of world that those men and women and all Americans want to build
these challenges can be met, so long as it's recognized that they will not be met by one person or one nation alone.
This award is not simply about the efforts of my administration; it's about the courageous efforts of people around the world.
This isn't merely rhetoric. It's a major paradigm shift. And it's one I struggled against in deciding to ultimately vote for Obama. I thought he was pushing responsibility away and avoiding making promises with his language about how it takes all of us. Over time, however, I came to see that he was really creating a new vision about how we do things in this country, one that just might pull us back to some of the values that were great about America, such as civic engagement, and at the same time pull us into a future which is embracing new values, such as environmental responsibility, global citizenship, and diversity. I began to see that in talking about how we would do this together he wasn't advocating responsibility, he was claiming leadership, and I had to let myself be led.

Obama accepted the award as a call to action. My greatest hope is that we can all accept the award, as a country, and try to live up to its call.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How Health Care is Our Moral Issue

Here's the sermon I gave on health care last Sunday (September 27, 2009). Please keep in mind if you weren't there that much of the passion is in the delivery. If you were there, the same thing goes.

In eight years I’ve been in ministry, there have been a handful of national issues that have seemed to me to demand a loud, clear, moral voice from the faith community. I felt the need to speak up about the violence and discrimination I saw against the Muslim community following September 11th, 2001. I felt the need to talk about and organize forums in opposition to our going to war in Iraq. I mourned the victims of and the seemingly overwhelming racism revealed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There are all sorts of moral outrages, threats to the environment, racism, heterosexism, classism, and all sorts of other evils to confront in our society, but these national-level issues took a demanding center stage in their time, commanded my attention, and absorbed my thought for months. Now, the issue before us is health care reform.

And while I feel passionately also about the other issues I’ve talked about—war and peace, racism, and religious equality, the moral issues around health care reform are personal to me in a way the others are not. So it is difficult to preach about, because I not only care about it deeply and am angry on a sort of societal outrage level, I have personal anger about it that it hard to set aside. And I’m not entirely sure I want to. Striking the balance, though, is hard. It is by far harder to preach about the things that I am passionate and emotional and deeply tied to, than it is about issues I can stand back from and know that my moral clarity is unbiased by my personal desires.

My own feelings stem from two incidents. Many of you have heard these in more detail before, and some of you may have read them on my blog recently, so I’ll keep it somewhat brief. In 1993 I feel and broke my back, literally—my first lumbar vertebra. Right here. I feel it today. I feel it every day when I stand up here and preach in front of you. And I was uninsured, and I was working full-time for a healthcare company—Blue Care Network, an affiliated HMO of Blue Cross, Blue Shield. And I lost my job, I lost my apartment, and I spent years paying off my medical debt, even after government assistance. I saw exactly what still remains after the government steps in and pays hospital bills, and you still have doctor’s bills, ambulance bills, medications, and other things left to pay for.

The second incident is as I was moving here, and trying to find insurance that would cover me with a major pre-existing condition: a pregnancy. Only one insurance agency had to take me, Blue Cross, Blue Shield (my old nemesis). And they didn’t have to take my pre-existing condition of being pregnant, under most situations. It took several people working constantly on this situation for months to find me the loophole under which they had to cover my pregnancy. And thank goodness for them.

So that, in a nutshell, has made me pretty seriously personally frustrated with the insurance system in America. I believe it needs major reform. I believe that the system is terribly broken.
But the case I want to make to you isn’t about my personal experience. I have opinions about all these things, but this is not about a public option. This is not about socialism. This is not an argument for abortion services to be covered. This is not about whether or not there are death panels. This is not about economics and what our country can afford. This is not about rationing. This is not an argument about a single-payer system. This is not an argument about problems in the insurance industry. And I do have strong opinions about all these things, I say again. This is not about Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, or Rush Limbaugh. This is not a sermon about Republicans versus Democrats. This is not a sermon about House bills and Senate bills. This is not a sermon about racism against our president.

This is about a universal moral code. This is about the bottom line of what it means to be religious. This is about morality. What I want you to see is what is moral here. We’re talking about this because it’s a question of what is morally right. We’re talking about moral imperatives.

Now, there are a lot of differences people hold on what is a moral imperative. For example, I found one quote from Michael Hlinka, a CBC business columnist, wherein he says, “I’m not about to knock anyone for getting as much as they can. That’s something close to a moral imperative in my book.” (1) Perhaps most of us would disagree, and say that the drive to get what you want is not a moral imperative. On the other hand, there’s President Obama, who said, “We also need to provide Americans who can't afford health insurance more affordable options. That's an economic imperative, but it's also a moral imperative.” (2) Here, I happen to agree. I see affordable health insurance as a moral imperative for our country. Now, Obama actually goes on to explain the reasons it’s an economic imperative, but he doesn’t really explain why it’s a moral imperative. So that’s what I’d like to do today.

There are many sources of authority we could choose from, as Unitarian Universalists, to appeal to our moral consciousness. The Golden Rule exists in every religion—that which tells us to treat others with the type of care that we wish to be treated with ourselves. Turning to the Bible, one of the first stories we get is the story of Cain and Abel, wherein Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, the reason why this piece of dialogue is such a famous line, the reason why it is repeated so many times is because of course, we are meant to understand that yes, we are our brother’s keeper. That is to say, we are told we should respect all people, and care for them like our brothers. Then, in the gospels, with Jesus, we get his teachings. I believe that the meaning of being Christian isn’t really about whether or not you believe Jesus was God, or whether or not he died on the cross, but whether you strive to live by his teachings, whether or not you choose to use Jesus and his message as a rubric for life. And Jesus said, of course, telling about the kingdom of God in Matthew 25 (KJV):
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
If you think, well, Jesus just talks about visiting sick people, think about the medical knowledge of the time. Visiting a sick person then was pretty risky—you didn’t know that you wouldn’t be contaminated and die. Jesus asks people to risk their lives to take care of the sick. That’s a whole lot more risky than anything we’re being asked today to do to care for the sick. And, of course, many of Jesus’ miracles have to do with healing, most famously raising Lazarus up from the dead, but in over twenty other accounts in the New Testament he heals the sick. If you look at all the miracles credited to Jesus, about 70 percent of them are healing, if you count groups of people being healed as one miracle. Now, I’m also counting raising the dead and exorcisms as healing. But this is basically all he does, other than turning water into wine one time and cursing a fig tree. Basically, this is what Jesus does during his life: he wanders around, gives lectures, and performs miracles. And the miracles he performs are almost always healing the sick. And the lectures he gives often talk about how we treat other people.

To be a Christian, you must follow Jesus’ teachings. And Jesus taught by his words and his actions, too. We can’t perform miracles, but we can do everything we can to heal the sick. And that includes giving them the access to medical care.

But, as I said, in every other religion, there is the Golden Rule. And every religion has stories which tell of the importance of healing the sick. We see in Buddhism, for example, that the entire religion is a response to suffering. Let me say that again: the entire religion is a response to suffering. The Buddha became the Buddha in response to the suffering he saw in the world. He was a prince, a man who himself had been protected. He had the Cadillac of health insurance of his day: his father kept anyone sick or dying from coming near his son. And then one day he goes out into the world and sees that not everybody has access to the life he leads, and he is overcome from this experience. And he looks for answers to this, and he comes up with what we know as Buddhism.

I think you can look at the story of these two great teachers, Jesus and Buddha, as a story of two men who understood at the deepest level their moral obligations to others, and that those moral obligations were to alleviate suffering however possible. Jesus does it with miracles. Buddha does it with giving us the wheel of the law. But we have equal moral obligation to the weight these two incredible men felt on their shoulders. We have a moral obligation to alleviate suffering. As religious people, we must look out into the world like Jesus and Buddha, and look for how we can alleviate suffering. And we can do it and must do it in this country. We don’t need miracles, we don’t have access to miraculous powers to heal the sick. But we can do a lot more than we’re doing now. We have amazing scientific knowledge that Jesus and Buddha didn’t have access to. We have amazing medical practitioners. We can and must, as religious people, choose to heal the sick.

If we are moral, religious people, we must live up to this greatest moral imperative, this greatest moral obligation. Jesus saw suffering, and he went out and did something about it. Buddha saw suffering and he went out and did something about it. And now we have people in this country who dare to say that they are Christian, and they believe that the problem with health care reform is that we might possibility provide health care to immigrants? What would Jesus say about that? Oh, sorry, you’re a Samaritan, not a Jew, and so I don’t think you should have access to my miracles? No health care for illegal immigrants, they say, and then turn around and say this is a Christian nation? As long as anyone is turned away from medical treatment, there is no way that this is a Christian nation. If you believe that being Christian means being good, we are failing miserably.

Now, I know not everyone here wants to consider this a Christian nation. Perhaps you don’t want to consider us a religious nation, either, because of separation of church and state. But I do want to consider us moral people. And if you are a Christian person, or a religious person, or a moral person, our obligation is to care for others, not just ourselves. That’s the essence of faith—this connection to something other than the selfish “I”, the individual ego, that our greedy society would otherwise hold as primary. And if we are a Christian country or a religious country or a moral country, we must show it in our actions of how we treat the poorest among us. And by saying it’s about how we treat them, yes I mean it’s how we treat them medically, as well. That is the essence of religion. If you have a connection to the divine, you have a connection to other people. And yet in this country we have people dying because they can’t afford treatments. We have people becoming homeless because they can’t pay their medical bills. We have people suffering because we horde health like it is a scarce resource. And we say we respect every person on the web of life in Unitarian Universalism, and we say in America everyone is created equal. And it is meaningless. This is an outrage. It is shameful. It is a failure of epic proportions.
If we are religious people, if we are American people, we have two choices: we can change this system, or we can live in shame, knowing that we saw the shining possibility of a truly great nation on a hill and we ran the other way out of selfishness, greed and fear.

I’m sorry if you want a nuanced approach today, full of openness and seeing all sides. I don’t see it that way. There is love, and then there is this, the system that we have. There is living our religion, and then there is this, the system that we have. There is God’s vision, and then there is the system that we have. And we have a choice. We choose the path of love, of living our religion, of God’s vision, or we choose the system that we have. There is no gray area to me. There is no time for a nuanced moderate approach. There are people dying out there. And we need to stop being the country that is killing them.

(1) Hlinka, Michael. “There must be a direct connection between CEO pay, performance.” CBC News. February 5, 2009.

(2) Obama, Barack. “Should Security Guards Wear Bullet-Proof Vests?; President Obama Urges Health Care Changes.” CNN.June 11, 2009

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Back to Health Care Reform: What is Insurance Anyway?

I've taken a couple weeks off from posting about health care reform, but this week I'm preaching on it, so it's very much on my mind. Of course, sermon writing and blog writing are two very different things, so I'm writing this in hopes that it will get some of the stuff I'm feeling out of the way and I can get down to writing a real sermon tomorrow. That will be focusing on the moral issues of health care reform--our moral obligation as a society in how we deal with suffering, for example.

So today, you get how I really feel about insurance. I got in an argument with a friend recently about what the purpose of insurance is/should be. I think maybe she was arguing what it is, and I was arguing what it should be.

Essentially, what I believe insurance should be is it should be a capitalist system wherein we essentially socialize a system--we spread costs that would be unbearable for any individual person across a whole group. We collect insurance premiums in order to pay for those costs. Then, when the unbearable cost strikes you, you use your insurance.

What insurance is, in our country, is a company that works as best as it can to collect your money and give you nothing in return. This is true for every type of insurance, but particularly true for health care, and particularly egregious, since this impacts not just wealth but life itself.

The first problem with all insurance is that if you use it, your rates go up.

So, take for example automobile insurance. Anyone reading this ever decide not to report a legitimate claim for a small item because it might affect your rate? The idea that actually needing your insurance then moves your costs upwards, for any kind of insurance, is a negation of what insurance should really be about, in my definition of insurance.

The second problem with all insurance is that if you've needed it in the past, they will either deny you insurance or charge really high rates.

The third problem with insurance is that if you look like you're likely to need it, your rates will go up.

Back to automobile insurance, this means that if you have a long commute, a car that's too old or too new or too pricey, or if you are under a certain age or over a certain age, or if your car is red, or if you have any number of variables that make you more risky, you will pay more.

It's bad enough when it's your car insurance, or your housing insurance, or your life insurance, but when it's your health insurance, it takes a major toll.

The fourth problem with insurance is that the insurance company will try and limit what they could possibly have to cover as much as possible.

So, if it's housing insurance, this means if you're in an area that floods, they will not cover floods. If you are in an area that is high crime, it will not cover break-ins. As much as possible, they want to avoid covering anything that could be considered "an act of God," or anything that could be considered your own fault. What does that leave? As far as the insurance companies are concerned, hopefully nothing.

The fifth problem with insurance is that there's often not enough competition.

So for health insurance, for example, only one company in Michigan was required to provide me with health insurance--Blue Cross Blue Shield. And therefore they had no competition for my money, and I had to take whatever terms and costs they offered.

Calling this a health care crisis in our country isn't really accurate--it's a health insurance crisis. Our health insurance system no longer does what we need it to do. It's broken. It always was broken, because it was the wrong answer to the problem, but the cracks in it have gotten wider.

The reason why it is so broken? Greed. I firmly believe that the bottom line in health care insurance is a financial bottom line--how can we make the most money? What we need is a moral and ethical and compassionate bottom line--how can we help people the most?

Even calling this a health insurance crisis isn't accurate enough, perhaps. It's a compassion crisis.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

More on Atheism, Agnosticism, and Humanism, and the Nature of God

First, some general definitions.
Atheist: Someone who does not believe in God. There are many distinctions you can make among atheist--strong, weak, implicit, explicit, practical, theological--but the two major ones are strong atheism vs. weak atheism. A strong Atheist believes that it is certain and clear that there is no God. A weak Atheist does not believe in God, but doesn't assert the lack of God--it could be said to include all forms of non-theists.

Non-theist: Someone who does not assert a belief in God. I would include Agnostics, Atheists, most Buddhists, and many others in this group. Some would argue any non-theist is an atheist. I generally reserve the term "Atheist" for the group that is really strong Atheists, and use "non-theists" as the catch-all term.

Agnostic: Someone who does not know whether or not God exists. Again, can be divided into many categories, the main ones being strong or weak. A weak Agnostic does not know if there is a God, but may feel that they are still weighing evidence or will receive more evidence. A strong Agnostic believes that ultimately it's unknowable whether or not God exists.

Humanist: Humanism has meant many things, but right now I'll borrow a definition from the Continuum of Humanist Education: "Humanism is a godless philosophy based on reason and compassion." A major distinction I would make among Humanists is religious Humanists and secular Humanists. Secular Humanists would assert that Humanism is a philosophy and has nothing to do with religion. Religious Humanists can see Humanism as a religion, albeit one that does not require a belief in God. It is also possible to believe in God and be a Humanist, I would assert. If you follow a "godless philosophy based on reason and compassion" that does not mean you cannot believe in God. Theistic Humanists may be rare, but they exist.

And a Note on Capitalization: Many Atheists, Agnostics, and Humanists would not capitalize these words, and many do not capitalize God. I choose to capitalize God except when I am specifically pointing out that there are a number of different gods that have been believed in by different cultures. It is important to recognize that Atheists don't believe in any god, however, not just the Judeo-Christian God. I choose to capitalize here, although I'm often inconsistent, the terms Atheist, Agnostic, and Humanist out of a measure of respect for them as religious or areligious systems. That is certainly arguable, and I imagine it will be argued. I support you who do not capitalize in your lack of capitals. I choose to differ.
I put myself in the category of Agnostic and would call it a meta-strong Agnosticism: I believe it's currently unknowable whether or not it is unknowable whether or not God exists. And I'm a Religious Humanist. I once preached a controversial sermon in my internship congregation called "A Humanist's Search for God," and was told by some Humanists that a Humanist can't search for God. (I would call them church-going Secular Humanists, which seems like an oxymoron, yet I've encountered many in Unitarian Universalist churches.)

As an Agnostic, however, I have some very clear ideas of what kind of god is possible, and what kind is not. And I have an absolute faith in this, and it's definitely a faith, because it's based on my passion, not on reason, if you want to make a distinction between faith and reason, although I reject such distinctions. We are a reasonable faith, in Unitarian Universalism. Our faith is grounded in reason.

But my faith in what kinds of god is impossible is not based in reason, although I'm sure that a reasonable argument for my atheism towards certain gods could be based in reason.

Here goes:

If there is a God...
  • God does not choose the victor in football games.
  • God does not choose sides in human wars.
  • God does not save some people from disease while letting others die.
  • God does not "bless America" or any other country.
  • God does not send floods, hurricanes, or other natural disasters to punish people.
  • God does not create diseases to punish people.
  • God does not appear to some people and not others.
  • God does not damn people for their sexual orientation or gender.
  • God does not damn anyone.
  • God does not demand belief in God.
I would say I am atheistic towards those gods. And like all atheism, in my opinion (here's the fighting words), this is based on a passionate belief that goes beyond reason. My heart and soul reject the idea that there could be a God who answers some people's prayers for life and health and not others, because I want to believe that if there is a God, God is good, and this would not match my definition of good.

No, I do not believe in the healing power of prayer. I have heard people say that I do not pray or will not pray with people. This is not true. I do it all the time. I just don't do the "God, please heal so-and-so" type of prayer. And when I am asked to pray for people, which I will do, I do not pray for God to heal them. I pray for them. I pray (which is to say voice my hope, directed to a possible God) that they find the love or the strength or the compassion they need, in themselves and in their support networks. I voice what we are grateful for, or what needs are. To me that is prayer. And that is about as far as prayer can go, in my opinion. It can give voice to things, name things. That's about it. If you hear me give the prayer at a dinner at church, you'll hear something like, "Spirit of Life, we remember... (insert negative things that are relevant--poverty, hunger, etc.), and we are grateful for... (insert food, company, program, other noteworthy positive things). Blessed be and Amen." Pastoral prayers in situations like the hospital often take a similar structure.

Okay, you say, but aren't you doing a blessing of the animals this week? Why yes. One definition of "bless" means to "hallow or consecrate." I believe all creatures are holy (inherently good and worthy of love), and so blessing something is simply a naming of its holiness. And it is possible that there is a God of love who loves all creatures, and so blessing them is a naming of that possible fact in ritual.

Which brings me to the type of God I believe possible. The God I believe could be possible would be a God that, if God is a sentient being, cares for and loves all people equally, and with a perfect love that, ultimately, saves everyone. More likely God is something more like love, or positive energy, or the greater sum of all the parts of the universe, or something we create together in the work of love and justice. It's quite possible that humans do create God, and that God isn't fully created yet. Those kinds of God are possible, to me. I find it impossible to rule out the possibility of any sort of God. Yes, the world can be explained without it, but that doesn't prove the negation of it, or the lack of possibility that there is something more.