“We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves at fires we did not light.
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
We profit from persons we did not know.
We are ever bound in community."

Rev. Peter Raible (paraphrased from Deuteronomy 6:10-12)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thermostats vs. Thermometers

In the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, July 24, 2011, Cornell West said,  "Be a thermostat rather than a thermometer. A thermostat shapes the climate of opinion; a thermometer just reflects it."

(image credit.)
That idea lodged in my brain: be a thermostat, not a thermometer. 

Another way to say this might be, "Awaken! Listen to that still small voice from within (or without). Listen to the cries of longing and suffering around (and within you), and discover where your great gladness meets the world's great need, and then act and move in the world in a new way."

Be a thermostat, not a thermometer.

Maybe Buddha was a "thermostat." Or Jesus. Or Ghandi. Or Susan B. Anthony. Or your mother, minister, or mentor. Someone you respected, listened to, even followed; someone who shaped their environment in positive, life affirming ways, and articulated a dream of how things could be. They weren't perfect, but you knew where they stood and they stood on the side of love.

Be a thermostat, not a thermometer.

Seems to me that "thermostats" are grounded in some sort of practice or spiritual discipline; they have a vision of the beloved community, a sense of the common good, a thirst for justice, and they truly love their neighbors as themselves. Thermostats can cut through the noise of the culture, the nonsense that passes as truth, and point toward something bigger, a deeper reality. 

We live in a thermometer culture (i.e., What's trending/trendy right now? What ways are the opinion winds blowing? How much of our lives are echo chambered off from the rest of reality?) We live in a thermometer culture which is why faith communities matter. Faith communities are one of the places where, through worship and small group participation, through serving, learning, justice making, giving, receiving, and growing, we might come to see ourselves as thermostats - instruments - called to help shape a new narrative/a new reality of inclusion, hospitality, love, and interdependence.  

(Photo credit)
Be a thermostat, not a thermometer.      

Saturday, July 23, 2011

"It Helps Now and Then..." - In the midst of a crazy world, a moment for gratitude

I know it might seem weird to be writing about gratitude on a day when the world is reeling from the news out of Norway (more on evil in another post), when Congress can't seem to find a way to raise the debt ceiling and address the budget (or find a civil way to work and compromise together so our children and grandchildren have a future worth living into), and when some are calling the heat index and climate change a left wing conspiracy. 

Climate change, the debt ceiling, and the terrible, horrible, tragic violence wrought by an extremist in Oslo are all on my mind. (And my prayers are certainly with the families and friends of all those who were injured or lost their lives in this attack.) 

But gratitude is also on my mind. 

Here's the story: It looks like we'll be moving to Minneapolis soon, to rent a home much closer to First Universalist. We're thrilled. At the same time,  we're sad about leaving Frogtown, our St. Paul neighborhood. Right now, we're in the process of packing, as it's all on a pretty fast timeline. And you probably know the moving drill: Almost every item that gets touched get this treatment, "Keep it? Toss it? Or give it away?" Mostly, it's pretty straight forward, but there are some items that haven't been touched in years, and when they are, stories, memories, and deep feelings all come flooding back. And often, lots of gratitude. Heap-loads of gratitude. 

Not the exact journal, but close!
(image from http://www.eastgate.com/catalog/ItalianJournal.jpg)
I was packing up my home office, when I came upon a gift from my Ordination and Installation service, nearly two years ago in October, 2009. It was a beautiful journal from a dear friend and colleague. I had (somehow!) completely forgotten about this gift. "On the occasion of your ordination - Oct 25, 2009," the inscription read. 

Holding this gift brought back a flood of memories from that day, as First Universalist and I began our shared ministry journey together, as we were collectively called by something greater than ourselves to serve something greater than ourselves. I turned the page in the journal to discover these words, credited to archbishop Oscar Romero, but actually written by by Ken Untener for John Cardinal Dearden in November of 1979: 

"It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

We cannot do everything, and we will never see the end results of what we start, but we must do something...despite the heart break and fear and extremism in the world, we must be the yeast that helps bring a new creation/world into being.  

Today, in the midst of everything, this is what I needed to hear and be reminded of. Thank you, dear friend. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Is your Mission Statement Tweetable?

What's in a Mission Statement? Does it need to be short and memorable, simple - something that can guide you like a North Star? And in this day and age, does it need to be Tweetable?

At First Universalist, we recently re-examined our church's mission statement (it had been over a decade since we last looked at it.) The previous Mission Statement was, 

"We join together at First Universalist Church in a welcoming, spiritual community that affirms our liberal religious heritage. Our ministry is to bring the Universalist message of love and hope to one another, to our children, and to the work of social justice." (Two Tweets.)

And after a detailed, very intentional process, lead by our Board of Trustees, we emerged with: 

"In the Universalist spirit of love and hope,
we give, receive, and grow. 

First Universalist Church"  (One Tweet.)

Universalism undergirds this new mission statement: Love and hope call us to faithfully give the gifts, talents, voice, passion, resources, compassion, and energy we have to serve one another and the world. Love and hope call us to give our attention, to listen, and to walk with others. And love and hope call us to let go, to trust, to receive the blessings that come unbidden, to receive without expectation of returning the gift. And love and hope call us to grow, to deepen, to integrate, to walk ever more faithfully as we align our values with our actions....it's a spiral that goes deeper and deeper. 

"Give, receive, grow." I think it's deceptively simple and I've barely given it justice here. We're just beginning to live into it. But I love how that screen of "give, receive, grow" can be applied to everything we're doing....children's ministry, small groups, justice work, worship. If we're not giving, or receiving, or growing (in that spirit of love and hope), then we're off mission.

We'll be unpacking this new mission statement in more detail and what it's calling us to in a sermon series starting in September. 

But for now, these thoughts: What's your mission statement (personal or institutional)? How easy is it to be remember? Can you Tweet it?! 

Monday, July 18, 2011

A bit about me...

I probably should have started the blog with this post, but seeing as I have no readers yet, and haven't really gone "live" with this - no Tweets about it, no Facebook mentions - no harm done (note: when this was written, this was true - now, a few of you are reading! Welcome!

So here's a quick, highly selective, sketch of who I am: I grew up with a deep connection to the outdoors. In fact, it was outdoors, looking up at the Milky Way in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, that I felt the first stirrings of ministry. Although my father does not consider himself a religious person, he read and was very familiar with Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, and Ghandi. These men spoke to my father about something sacred and holy that they encountered in the valleys, mountaintops, and human heart. Through his actions, my father conveyed this to me, teaching me that there is a transforming, creative, mysterious power at work in the world and in the human spirit. Looking up at the Milky Way that night, I felt the reality of this power, mysteriously twinkling in the sky, and alive in my own beating heart. Lying under the stars those many years ago, I wondered how I might best align my life with the reality of this power. 

Around this time that my family joined Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO, and I became very active in the youth group. 
In college, my interest in religion and the human search for meaning grew. I majored in English and found joy in the words of authors and poets who wrestled with the beauty, joy, complexity, and darkness of life and human yearning. After I graduated, the call to ministry still stirring within me, I was hired as the “Youth Programs Coordinator” at Foothills Unitarian Church.

In 2001, I was hired by All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa to do Young Adult and Campus Ministry work full time. Soon after, I began taking classes at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, and Phillips Theological Seminary (Disciples of Christ) in Tulsa. I served at All Souls until 2006.

My partner and I moved to St. Paul in June, 2006, to do an internship at Unity Church Unitarian. After the internship, I stayed on as a staff member, serving as the Director of Congregational Development. In August, 2009, I started as the Senior Minister at First Universalist Church in Minneapolis. It has been an incredible two years. I feel blessed and privileged to serve such a community.  

So that's a quick snapshot - some background story and information.

There are two other very significant things that have shaped me that you should know about. The first is my marriage to J.K. In June, 2007, our closest friends and family blessed our sacred, covenantal promises with one another. But our wedding was about more than us and the gathered community; we were also covenanting with the Holy, promising to be faithful not only to one another, but to that creative spirit which brought us into being, and blessed us with the gift of life. This was reflected in a portion of our vows: “Recognizing that our relationship is nourished by and nourishes the larger community of which we are a part, we vow to extend ourselves outward from our relationship to nurture greater justice and beauty in our community and the world.” (More on marriage, marriage equality, and the joys, challenges, spiritual work, and deep blessings of being married - that's another blog post!)

As many of you might have guessed, the second significant event has been parenthood. Having a son has truly put me in touch with my calling, passion, and motivation for being a minister. Our son reminds me why I am in ministry. He adds fuel to my desire to create a more just, equitable, safe, and sustainable world. This desire is not just for my child, but for all children, and for the most vulnerable among us. I imagine our son growing up in a religious community (and world) where all children are loved and cared for.

A few summers ago, I went camping with my wife on the North Shore of Lake Superior. We were away from the city lights and we had the opportunity to watch the stars come out and twinkle above our heads. It reminded me that it’s been over twenty years since my father and I gazed at the same stars. Now, I feel in my bones that the seeds of this ministry have grown deep roots and that my life is increasingly aligned with and committed to that power I saw and felt as I watched the twinkling stars so many years ago. This commitment continually manifests itself as a growing awareness of the miracle of life and the reality of death. This awareness invites me to truly discover what it means to be a human being: to live knowing I will die, to try to love with all my heart, to serve the world, to work for justice, and to realize as the evangelical evolutionist Michael Dowd has said, "Nothing is itself without everything else."

With this theological perspective, the material world is not a sinful and dangerous place, a world we must spiritually escape from, but rather our true home. Here, we are deeply rooted and defined by our relationships to one another, the environment, and the cosmos. I see that the stardust in my body is the stardust of all creation, of the great blue heron, of the food that nourishes me. Our material commonality speaks to our spiritual interconnectedness.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Remember Friendster?

I'm just finishing an interesting book by Clay Shirky called Here Comes Everybody. It's about the power of the Internet (and social networking sites) to help people form groups that are independent of institutions and organizations (a micro-example of this is the UU Growth Lab, the UU Worship Lab, and the other UU Labs that have sprung up on Facebook. Check them out, if you haven't already.) Shirky argues that the barriers to forming groups and sharing information have all been lowered dramatically in the past ten years. Sites like Flickr and Facebook make it easy to connect with others who have similar interests, whether it's around photographs, political causes, or hobbies.

I've enjoyed the book....AND it's made me reflect on how quickly things move and change in the internet world, how what's here today can be gone tomorrow. Things change, people migrate, systems collapse.

Remember back in the day when Friendster was all the rage? That was the online place to be...and then other social networking sites emerged, and somehow Friendster just wasn't cool anymore. Hard to imagine something like this happening with Facebook or Twitter, but surely it could.

And if they collapsed, what would remain? The need to connect with others. The need to be a part of something bigger than oneself. The need for meaningful friendships and relationships and stories that anchored us in something greater than our pain, our suffering, our "I, Consumer" identity. The need to be of service and to share one's gifts with the world.

The tools change but the fundamental human needs remain the same.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

What "The Well" is all about...

First and foremost - "The Well" is about gratitude. 
It's about creating a space to name and notice the people, ideas, books, and nourishing sources that feed and inspire my life and ministry.  Currently, I'm feeling inspired, fed, and grateful for Phil Lund, the outstanding Sunday worship at General Assembly this year, by my family, and so much more. I'm also going to begin posting regularly on Twitter - to lift up things/people/sources that I noticed and felt thankful for during the day. Noticing - and giving thanks - really does impact my spiritual life. 

Second, "The Well" is an experiment in digital ministry. I've had a Facebook page for a while, have just started using Twitter more frequently, and now, with the launch of this blog, plan to post regularly during the upcoming year. I hope to bring my ministry into the virtual world in a more meaningful way.  People like revnaomi and Meg Riley  (Senior Minister of Church of the Larger Fellowship) are just a tiny sampling of digital ministry people and spaces that intrigue, challenge, and inspire me. (BTW: Church of the Larger Fellowship recently came out with a mobile phone app. You can learn more here.) 

Third, "The Well" will be a place to explore the intersection of Unitarian Universalist faith, fatherhood, family, church life, large church ministry, technology, UU evangelism, and joy. I'll share ideas for sermons that are percolating, thoughts about church health and growth, social justice issues that are important to me, and share how my faith - and spiritual practices - are shaping my life.

PS - "The Well" is also the title of our current summer worship series at First Universalist, running through Sept 11, 2011. If you're in the area, stop by on Sundays at 10am or check us out on podcast.