Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lent & Ash Wednesday

Rev. Sean over at his "ministrare" blog had a very beautiful post about Ash Wednesday. As we enter Lent, I have to confess something: Lent has always mystified me.

I can remember as a child, that I had friends who observed Lent, and my response was always confusion then. I didn't know what it was, what it symbolized, what one did and why, what it meant. Even when children tried to explain it to me, I just reacted with a sort of deep confusion: why would anyone do that?

I know the answers to those things now, but some of the mystery still surrounds it. If I was asked to do an Ash Wednesday service now, my response would be as much confusion as I experienced during my hospital chaplaincy during seminary when I was asked to give communion to a Catholic. I don't know the words, the order, the ritual. I think any Ash Wednesday service I did would be hollow and fake. For me, perhaps, it would be cultural borrowing to attempt such a thing. One could say I have the credentials, being raised by Christians, being baptized a Christian, yet for me it is so much more foreign than a Passover seder, for example. I have never been to an Ash Wednesday service, for starters.

Coming to this church, several UUs told me that they observe Lent. It's worth noting that all of them are not Christian UUs, either. And I suppose I can understand the spiritual purpose of giving something up for a period, particularly something one considers a vice or an indulgence. However, I'm personally more likely to do it in some other format or at some other time than in conjunction with this holiday that I just feel I have absolutely no connection to.

For those of you observing Lent, my blessings with you on that spiritual journey. As for myself, my spiritual practice is likely to continue to take other forms.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Love in the Face of Hate Crimes

Jim David Adkisson pleaded guilty last week for the crime of shooting and killing two people during the Sunday worship service at the Tennessee Valley UU Church last July. The letter/manifesto he wrote and left in his car prior to the shooting has been released by the press. Before you read it or read further here, be aware that it is has strong negative and prejudicial langugage, as well as profanity. It can be read in full here. On the first page, he talks about his inability to get a job, and his hatred of liberals. He says, "The worst problem America faces today is Liberalism. They have dumbed down education, they have defined deviancy down. Liberals have attacked every major institution that made America great. From the Boy Scouts to the military, from education to Religion."

On the second page, Adkisson attacks Unitarian Universalists in particular, under a heading "The Unitarian Universalist Church," saying:

It isn't a church, it's a cult. They don't even believe in God. They worship the God of secularism. These sick people aren't Liberals, they're Ultra-Liberals. This is a collection of sicko's, weirdo's, & homo's. The UU church is the Fountainhead, the veritable wellspring of anti-American organizations like, Code Pink, and
other anti-American groups. Those people are absolute Hypocrits. They embrace every pervert that comes down the pike, but if they find out your a conservative, they absolutely Hate you. I know, I experienced it.
Some of that language you may find offensive; what follows was even more so, so I am not reprinting it here. And then, on the third page is a section titled "Know This If Nothing Else" with three itemized items: I. This was a hate Crime, II. This was a Political Protest, and III. This was a symbolic killing. Each one is elaborated on. The fourth page has a "Conclusion," and is signed by Adkisson. In the conclusion, he says to tell the police officer who killed him a message, so it's clear that he didn't believe he'd live after this intended killing spree. As he talks about wanting to kill many more people than he did, it's clear that his intention was to kill more than he was able to, thanks to the quick-witted congregation members at TVUUC.

I'm not sure what I make of all of this, except that when I read it I experience profound sadness and confusion. Why does a message of love and inclusion anger and outrage some people so much?

Something in me was tempted to address this claim Adkisson made, that people in UU churches hated him for being a conservative. Sure, there are growing areas each UU church has in how to be more welcoming and tolerant, but I think, rather, that it is all that he knew and could understand at that point was hate. The message we need to take from this is not the message about how we respond to conservatism in our congregations. That's a message for another day.

What I can say is that I have great admiration for the way TVUUC has responded, and, in particular, the graceful public presence of Rev. Chris Buice. His Newsweek article, if you missed it, was excellent. In it, he concludes:
Members of my congregation have been hurt. But we have also been healed by the feeling that there is a love greater than our theological differences, a compassion that is not limited by the boundaries of any creed. I firmly believe, now more than ever, that love is stronger than death. Love is more powerful than hate.

Amen to that. Adkisson said we don't beleive in God. Yet, on our altar is written, "God is love." In the face of such hatred and violence, it would be easy to turn to hatred ourselves--to really hate conservatives as Adkisson alleges we do. But in times like these, more than any others, we must turn to the root of our faith and practice what we preach, "live our religion," as the closing song at our church goes. And our religion is love.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

More on the "Recession"

Here in Jackson, it hasn't looked good lately. Some February developments:

Melling Tool is laying off 28 employees.
From a recent CitPat article:
• Gerdau Mac Steel has laid off 300 of 380 workers indefinitely.
• Michigan Automotive Compressor Inc. has offered buyouts to nearly all of its 740
• TAC Inc. has offered buyouts to 70 of 590 employees and gone to a
four-day week.
• CertainTeed has temporarily laid off 80 of 250 workers.
• Jackson-based Sparton Corp. has cut its workforce of 1,000 by 60.
Michigan Automotive Compressor is also offering buyouts.
Multiple local restaurants have reduced busing staff.
Bullinger's Pub is closing.

That's what February in Jackson has looked like, so far.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that some area churches are showing increased attendance. We had a packed house on Sunday for our guest speaker on Darfur. This is a good time as a church organization to think about what our saving message is, what our role in the community is, and how each of us can minister in this community.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Signs of the Times

Here in Michigan, we're about as hard-hit as it gets with this recession, and in our county here in Jackson, we're worse off than state average in terms of unemployment, despite our proximity to the employment star of the state, Ann Arbor. Unemployment in Jackson, Michigan, reached 11% in December. Meanwhile, our local community is buzzing over the news of a pay raise for Jackson Community College President Dan Phelan. It was probably a necessary move for the college, because, like with churches, the search process can be expensive and the pay is usually increased to move up to going rates for the new hire. It comes as a hard pill for the community to swallow, however, in the same week as the unemployment rate was announced and while faculty (and adjuncts like myself) have no contract. It makes the college board look out-of-touch with the living reality of its students, faculty, staff, and the community that surrounds and supports it. Personally, I think the board's decision was probably sound, but, unfortunately, really poor timing and unfortunate circumstances makes it look unseemly.

It's a good model to keep in mind for our churches and association, this balancing of sometimes necessary increases versus keeping in touch with our community. Our UUA board has voted to hold our dues steady for next year, rather than executing the planned increase. The Heartland District Board is predicted to do the same at their February meeting. Of course, they're also predicting revenue drops, as more and more churches fail to live up to their fair share dues. This means that they're going to have to make cuts in services, and possibly in jobs, in the long run. It's not what we want from our association and district, to have to cut what they can provide. However, a dues increase, even while planned, would be hard for our churches to manage, too. The association and denomination have chosen the harder route, but one which gives them their community's good will. Let's all try to remember that if our favorite thing is something to fall under the ax.

Individual churches will need to make the same choices. Can our members afford to pay more to cover the always increasing costs of doing business and giving small raises to cover our staff's increased cost of living, or will we also, like the UUA and Heartland District, be looking for ways to cut? One presumes it'll probably be the latter with many churches, particularly ones like ours in economically depressed regions.

Needless to say, there are some tough cuts being made out there at denominational, district, and individual church levels. No doubt we will have some hard decisions to make, as well. Over at Philocrites' blog, he writes about how one of the largest churches in our association, in a state with 9% unemployment is handling it: they're closing their doors for the month of July.

Hard times mean hard decisions. I only hope we can all be as open to thinking outside the box and coming up with creative, although difficult, decisions like Portland.