Friday, February 26, 2010

Why the Hell Are You Doing This Sermon???

I have a dear friend who asked me to coach her in writing a sermon. It has wound up being a great gift to me, as it’s forced me to think through the steps I take. Some are obvious – Big Idea, main points, explanation/illustration/application, but as we’ve done this process, step by step, I realized there are other things I always do, that I never thought about as steps.

The biggie is The Reassess.

After she was more or less done with her sermon – it was all out there, but no tweaking and editing yet – I said, okay, time to reassess. Send me a paragraph or so, explaining why you're doing this sermon. I told her to imagine a bitchy person at her elbow, asking, "Why should I come hear this sermon on Sunday? I could be in bed, or seeing a movie, or outside playing golf. What is so important that I should spend my free time coming to hear this?"

She wrote me a polite little paragraph, the kind of thing you could drop into a church newsletter.

Nuh-uh, I told her.

And I opened up a can of Sermon Whoop-Ass.

1) Have confidence! You have a VITALLY important message to give. This could, literally, be a matter of life and death. You have the power to SAVE someone on Sunday. OWN IT!

2) Translate this into your own theological language: You are in this place, at this time, for a reason. This is not just to fill empty time on a Sunday. A Holy Spirit (whether God/Goddess involved or not) is moving in you and through you. This is not about feeling too proud. It's about being confident in the life-giving message you are to give. As Thandeka says, "Salvation is NOT a solo act!"

Now ... write back to me, no fancy language, use expletives if you need to: tell me why the hell you're doing this sermon on Sunday, what you want someone to walk away with, what is going to feed them, challenge them, and keep them going for one more week of this existence!!!
In case I didn’t mention it, we’re very good friends.

She dug down deep, wrote back with an on-fire answer, looked back over her sermon, did some tweaking to make sure it matched her fiery answer. It rocks.

I’ve always kind of done that step automatically, but I’m glad I have it down in words. “Can of Sermon Whoop-Ass.” It will be one of my official steps now, too.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Your House Is On Fire

Many groups of people have ways of getting folks to find out what they most value. For chefs, as Anthony Bourdain has reported, they play "last meal" -- it's your last meal, what will be on your plate? For fashionistas, it's about the closet -- you're leaving on a long trip, but can only take one small duffel. Go to your closet - what do you take? For home organizers, it's "house on fire" -- your house is on fire, and you have 5 minutes to get out. Assuming those you love are safe, what are the objects you grab?

So, okay, UUs. Prompted by a couple of columns, I say to you ... your UU house is on fire. You can only grab 3 things. What do you grab?

Of course, I don't mean "things" and this isn't the joke about the UU minister grabbing the coffee pot. I'm serious. I think we're at a point where our house is on fire and we have to decide what are the elements most important to us, so that we can discard the rest, and open our doors to let in new people. We've got some volunteers ready to help us put out the fire, but they're not sure if they're welcome.

So, culturally, what do you grab? I'm not talking theology. I'm not talking Principles and Purposes. I'm talking about those cultural things that aren't written down, and yet, often define us, whether we want them to or not.

How do you feel about people standing outside your front door, smoking? What about pickups in the parking lot, with gunracks in the back window? How about for a fundraiser, selling hot dogs outside a Walmart?

Your UU house is on fire. What are the three things you grab?

I'll go first.

* Inclusive language -- saying "they" rather than "he," saying "parents" rather than specifying "mommy and daddy," etc.

* Being known as the "gay friendly" church. I walk in a world of evangelicals. All I have to do is say, "I'm UU" and the glbt folks I meet know that I'm "safe." What a wonderful religion, where just revealing you're a member is taken as "code" for being accepting of others.

I'm still thinking about that third one.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Reverend First Name

A conversation arose on Facebook recently about the use of “Rev” in front of a first name. Reverend John. Reverend Jane.

The question was posed in terms of ministers using it themselves, as in signing a note, “Rev. Jane.”

I wonder, however, if this is being driven by the ministers as much as it is the parishioners.

Some history: if you want to be puuuuurfectly correct, not only is “Rev. John” incorrect, but so is “Rev. Smith.” Reverend is an adjective. So an envelope is addressed to The Reverend John Smith, and when you speak to him, he is Mr. Smith. And if you are not using the first name on that envelope or in an introduction, what is proper would be “The Rev. Mr. Smith.”

(a little background)

But language does change according to the needs of a society. Sometimes, a correction can take hold and stop the evolution. For instance, a few years ago, “penultimate” became the trendy word, but with incorrect usage: many used it to mean “beyond-ultimate” rather than correctly, “one shy of ultimate.” But then enough people spoke out to say, “No, that’s wrong,” and suddenly, it seemed, everyone knew the correct usage.

Other things are losing battles. I was one of those passionately explaining to all and a sundry that the year 2000 was not the first year of the new century, 2001 was. Guess what? I lost.

“Raised” is another one. It was not correct to say that you were “raised” UU, you were “reared” UU. But even William Safire had to give up that one.

And some are decisions of priority. I, an English major, fought against the increasing usage of “them, they,” etc. as a singular tense word to avoid the exclusivity of “him, he,” etc. when gender wasn’t specified. But eventually, I had to make the decision that inclusive language was more important to me than proper subject-pronoun agreement. A minister should understand that they have the right to be flexible …

So back to, for me at least, the important issues at hand – who/what is driving the “Reverend First Name” bus and does it fill a need?

I think “congregations” and “yes.”

UU congregations, especially those who haven’t always had a minister of their own, have two forces at work: on one hand, they understand that ministry is something we all do together. They are teammates with the minister; especially in small churches, the minister is not someone removed, several steps away from the laiety. He’s the guy in jeans next to you at the planning meeting, she’s the gal squatting down to show where the leak is in the nursery. So calling them by their last name would seem artificial, and a bit odd.

But, I am also seeing a move to set apart the minister. Perhaps because of that intimacy, perhaps as a reaction against the devaluing of ministers, (those who have ever been involved in a “why do we need a minister anyway?” discussion known what I’m talking about), a congregation wants to make sure everyone knows that this is the minister, and that the position itself is accorded a certain level of ceremonial respect. Hence, Rev. John and Rev. Jane.

I saw this happen in my own church. After a stretch with no minister, they got Rabbi Shaman. A bit to his surprise, they began calling him Rev. John.

It fulfilled two purposes. He was sanctified – set apart – but they also had the feeling that he was down in the trenches with them.

Was it that reasoned out? I don’t think so. I think it arrived fairly organically – we have a lot of children in our church, and being in the south, children here don’t call adults in church by their first names. They call them Mr. First Name and Ms. First Name. And so this was Rev. First Name. And it fit the adults’ needs as well. So Rev. John went with the flow.

Will this be one of those things where correction pulls us back to what is proper, or another evolution of language? I dunno. I kind of imagine it will be the latter. To paraphrase someone else’s remarks, Call me Rev. First Name, call me Rev. Last Name, call me Rev. Nickname, call me by my name. It’s all good …

p.s. And now you must excuse me to go play some music to try and get an pesky earworm removed. As I child, I was a fan of Mr. Green Jeans, on Captain Kangaroo. So when I heard, “Forever in Blue Jeans,” I thought it was, “Reverend Blue Jeans.”

Money talks
But it don't sing and dance and it don't walk.
And long as I can have you here with me
I'd much rather be
Reverend Blue Jeans.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Okay, okay, I’ll talk.

Suicide has been swirling around me recently. Not, thank God, anyone I know. But the subject. Songs. A celebrity here, someone in town there, a movement against it. People losing jobs, losing themselves, feeling without hope.

Yes. Love is written on my arm.

“I don’t have time to talk about it,” I tell the universe as yet another reference drops into my lap. And today, Kinsi is writing about it, personally, and heartfully.

Okay. Let’s talk.

As I’ve written about before, my elder brother committed suicide.

I was 10 – almost. It was late at night, and I thought I heard my mother laughing. I opened my parents’ bedroom door, and my mother was sobbing. I had never seen her cry before.

They had just received a cold, brutal phone call. “You son was found dead, hanging from a tree.”

Since their other son was in the guestroom with his new wife, they knew who it was. They would have known anyway. He had had “problems” for years. It’s like he was born without that little bubble each of us has, that bubble that provides a bit of protection from the pain of living. Things that would make other people sad – injustice, starving children – would just slice him to the core.

He was a genius. Literally. A brilliant mind. And it extended into creativity. He could pick up a musical instrument the very first time, and within 30 minutes, be playing songs on it. He was a visual artist, crafting things out of found objects.

He hadn’t yet found the drive in himself to do the work you need to do in life. Schoolwork. Responsibility. So he dropped out of high school, decided to join the air force. My father signed the papers. They had already tried counselors, programs. Maybe this would do it.

Instead, he was introduced to drugs, hard drugs. Which only fed his demons inside.

He came home, tried doing different things. He wandered.

He was only 23 when he killed himself. He laid out his military papers so he could be buried for free. He laid out his little life insurance policy.

My parents had to identify the body. My father saw the rope burn marks on his neck, and something broke inside him.

My other brother, 21, newly married, newly graduated, took the job of cleaning out our brother’s apartment. A job my parents will always regret letting him shoulder. Because as those who have done it know, it is excruciating.

My parents still grieve. My dad still hates Father’s Day.

My children, as they became old enough to hear the stories that included “Uncle J,” have asked, “What did he die from?”

And I have explained, that just as you can get sick in the tummy, you can get sick in the head. And you can get help for it, just like with your tummy.

“You know how when you have a bad stomachache, it feels like you’ll never get well again?” Yes, they know that feeling.

“Well, you can get so sad, that you feel you’ll never be happy again. But what happens with your tummy?” It finally gets better, they say.

“Yes. But you had to tell Mama or Daddy so we could get you medicine or take you to the doctor, right?” Uh-huh.

“Well, it’s the same with getting that sad. You have to tell someone. Even if you don’t believe you can ever be happy again, you have to tell someone. You can tell us, or a grownup friend, or a teacher. But you need to tell someone. Just say, ‘I’m sad, and I don’t know what to do about it.’”

So, right now … if you feel like this, if you find this … please.

Tell someone. “I’m sad and I don’t know what to do about it.”

If you are thinking about suicide, read this first.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Slow Revolution - Alexi Murdoch

We had our music communion a couple of weeks ago, where I was introduced to this song.

We had two of our most talented women doing it -- one playing piano, very simply, and one singing ... occasionally with a breaking voice, because it affects her so much.


Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Last Chance to Vote for Tom Stites!

The voting is about to close for the WeMedia Game Changer Award that I mentioned the other day. Tom is in the lead, but the gap is narrowing. Please go vote if you haven't, pass this on to your super duper networks, etc.

Vote for Tom!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Religious Experience for kids

The first religious experience (by which I mean, an experience in church, which is not necessarily a religious experience and in my case, certainly not) that I can remember, I must confess, involved those markers that smell fruity. We had each been given a copy of the 23rd Psalm, and were decorating it with markers and such. I had never encountered those markers and thought they were terrific. I keep sniffing my 23rd psalm later to see if the smell remained.

That is also the last experience at that Unitarian church that I can remember with any detail. I was about 12, we'd moved to an area closer to a UU church, so my parents took me. I finally complained to them that all we did was "talk about our feelings and eat donuts." They had already done the whole church thing with their first set of kids, so they were happy to go back to Sunday mornings of reading the newspaper and puttering around the house.

About a year later, I went to UCC Summer Camp with a friend of mine, who went to a UCC church. One week of being in nature, staying in screened cabins and taking cold showers, singing "I found happiness, I found peace of mind, I found the joy of living, perfect love sublime, oh I found real contentment, happy living in accord, I found happiness all the time, wonderful peace of mind, when I found the Lord."

I remember that week, and the week the following summer when I returned, in great sensory detail. The feeling of holiness sitting on a stone bench during the worship time. The feeling of warmth and closeness when we discussed God. Praying, s'mores, crafts, friendship. Singing, singing, singing. Silently meditating, sitting on the stone bench, the only light coming from the moon.

Now, it's not fair to compare the two. Sunday morning and summer camp are two different things. But it makes me think about what opportunities we're giving our kids for religious experiences.

And adults, for that matter.


I had already written the above post when I found this sermon of Rev. Anthony David's. It's good. "Amen" out loud good. What Kind of Unitarian Universalist Are You?

Monday, February 01, 2010

Everything I Needed to Know About Church I Learned at Weight Watchers

Okay, not everything, not by a long shot. But a lot.

1) Going every week matters. They can actually prove it with numbers -- those who attend lose three times as much weight as those who don't.

I can't imagine a way in which we could measure the effect that attending church has on congregants, but I think chances are good that there would be a positive correlation. For WW, it's two-pronged -- community and accountability. You go, you trade tips, you get motivated -- and you step on the scale. Every week, it's accountability time.

I have a mental cartoon of someone standing on a scale at a UU church. "That's wonderful, your soul has expanded 3 cubits this week and you've lost 3 ounces of selfishness!" Which leads me to ...

2) But the real work is done during the week. The half hour in the meeting doesn't yield any great results -- we're not on treadmills while we listen to the leader. The real work is done when we leave the meeting and apply what we've learned in our normal lives. It's when we choose to make a pan of stir-fried vegetables over microwaving a tray of mac and cheese.

And after church, it's when we decide to assume good intentions on the part of our co-worker, spouse, the person who just cut you off in traffic. Or when we're mindful about how we spend our time and money. Or any of the other choices that add up to living a deliberate, spirit-full life.

3) Having someone who can speak from experience matters. The only way you can work at WW is to be a "loser" yourself -- someone who lost weight on the plan.

Whether it's from the pulpit or in our small groups, speaking from experience, and not just something we read or heard, matters. This gets to the core of what we know. Or I guess I could say, "What we really know." There is a joke amongst parents -- "I was a better parent before I had children." It speaks to how confident (in some cases, arrogant) we were before having kids. "I don't have children, but if I did, I'd ...." And then we have kids. And we learn it isn't that simple. Speaking from experience matters.

Come to think of it, that's why I started going to WW. The BFF-DRE's Mom went and shrunk. And kept it off. Her experience spoke to me.

4) Those who aren't in it, will think it's a cult. Tee-hee.

"Why did I cringe away from WW?" I asked myself last year, as I kept watching the pounds slowly slip away, week after week. I think I had that "cult" idea in my head. And then I joined. And found that it wasn't anything as exciting as a cult, it was just, frankly, a hum-drum, common sense program. A commercial enterprise. You pay, you get their tools and access to meetings.

But when you're outside a group, it's always easier to feel that those inside the group are foreign. Before I had babies, I was that way about La Leche League. Militant Booby Pushing Cultists! I thought. And then I had babies. And went to some meetings. And it was just boring old mommies, trying to figure out how to nurse discreetly or up supply. Negotiating the terrain.

I see this in churches that don't have covenant groups, when you try to get them started. There is this fear that the small groups will become little cliques, that those on the inside somehow have more power than those on the outside. "I don't have time to be in a group, so I don't want there to be any," is an unfortunate message that has come through loud and clear. And then the person makes time to go to a covenant group, and learns that among all the benefits of the group, exclusivity isn't even on the radar.

5) If you work the program, it works. If you don't, it don't.

So you have the person who comes to church, excuse me, WW meetings, and they do attend regularly. They don't change their diet. They don't exercise. They don't count points. And they say, "This isn't doing anything for me! It doesn't work!"

Last year, for about 5 months, I worked the program conscientiously. I counted my points. I exercised, a bit anyway. And I lost 25 pounds.

Then the kids were out of school, and my schedule changed, and I had learned how to do it enough that even without working the program, I didn't gain weight. But I stopped losing. I stopped the program. It was a pretty simple corollary.

"I'm not being spiritually nourished," says the person who comes to church, but doesn't do further reading, participate in adult RE or small groups, or volunteer for any programs. This is the other side of #1, above. Ya gotta work the program. Christians say something about how going to church every Sunday doesn't make one a Christian anymore than sitting in a garage makes one a car. True dat. If you're not willing to make any changes in your life, then going to even the best sermons in the world every Sunday isn't going to do it for you.

6) It isn't for everybody.

When we are converted, whether to WW or UUism or a particular kind of vacuum cleaner, it's easy to convince ourselves that what works for us will work for everyone. It won't. There's some for whom WW just doesn't do it. And the same is true for church. There are some for whom Unitarian Universalism just isn't going to fit, but going every week to a Catholic church and reciting the creeds and getting the juice and wafer will.

I went to Mass this past Saturday for a school assignment. Between eyeing the dead Jesus hanging in the back wall, the very businesslike Eucharist, and the message, (not to mention the kneeling), it just didn't work for me. But it obviously works for some. I don't begrudge them.

We're all just trying to negotiate the terrain.

As for me, WW worked for me, so I'm back on it, counting my points and all. And yes, occasionally I can get a bit enthused, like when I found the 1 point tubs of Litehouse caramel dip. And I go to church, and have been known to get a bit enthused there, and take it home, and then do something crazy like enroll in seminary.

"Work it, baby, work it! Own it ...."