“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)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Violence and Suffering

Before I read the full details of the Accent Signage shooting in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis this afternoon, I thought to myself, "I'll bet this is another angry white guy." It's not always the case, and I don't mean to be over simplistic here, but the vast majority of the shooters that go on rampage seem to white guys.

And sure enough, that's what the reports confirm.

And it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart to think that this is the only way these men know how to deal with their anger and frustration. It breaks my heart that this keeps happening again and again. It breaks my heart that this kind of violence is seen as a solution and a way to solve the problem, whatever that problem might be. And it breaks my heart that innocent lives were taken and families torn apart. I condemn gun violence in all it's forms, whether it makes the public news, or it's simply the gun violence that happens every day across this country.

It's true that we live in a time of great suffering; many have lost their jobs; many have lost their homes; many are suffering. People are hurting. But gun violence doesn't end the hurting. It only adds to the hurt.

Several months ago, I heard author Parker Palmer speak at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. He said that violence, whether it's war or personal violence, is what happens when we don't know what else to do with our suffering.

There is a lot of suffering in the world right now, here, and abroad. May we have the courage to hear those who are in pain and to acknowledge their suffering and to help how we can. May we acknowledge our own suffering. And may we find a way to turn our suffering, our tears, grief, anger and fear, into something life giving and life affirming. May it be so.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What makes a church (a faith community) indispensable?

I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a church (any faith community, really) relevant and indispensable. I don't just mean relevant and indispensable to the people who come to the church, those who worship there, and attend classes, and are touched by the church and its ministries. I mean the wider community, the neighborhood.

What makes a church relevant and indispensable to the wider community?

As I begin my 4th year at First Universalist, we are beginning to take significant steps to truly engage with the wider community, in a more intentional and sustained way, but we're still a long, long way from were we might be...from where we dream of being.

My greatest fear is that if the church disappeared tomorrow, the neighbors right around us would say, "Hmm...I think there was a church there...I'm not sure. I don't really know." That's a heartbreaking thought.

Instead, if we disappeared, I love to imagine that the neighbors in the community might instead say something like this: "That church was incredible...they will be missed...they provided a great space for community gatherings, and cook outs and concerts in their parking lot; their community garden brought a whole bunch of us together and we'll maintain that no matter who moves into the building! And their after school program for children was such a gift to the community, too. They were engaged in their neighborhood: they help rebuild homes; they hosted block parties; they partnered with others in the community to work on racial justice issues..."

I'm dreaming here, throwing out ideas, but you get the sense of where I'm going with this question.

So what makes a church indispensable and relevant? What are your thoughts/experiences? What makes a church truly indispensable to the neighborhood and community, as well as those who attend?

Please share your stories, ideas, and call out the amazing things that churches (faith communities) are doing to be engaged in their wider communities.

Let's start a conversation! 

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Faith Perspective on the Two Amendments Minnesotans will Vote on in the Fall

(NOTE: This is a longer post than normal. It's a rough draft of the sermon I preached on August 26, 2012. As a person of faith, I'm voting NO on both the constitution amendments on the ballot. This sermon explains how my faith informs my thinking.)

Two weeks ago, Jen Crow, our Minister of Program Life, shared an image of cupped hands in her sermon. She talked about being held in cupped hands – literally, by the cupped hands of an elder in our congregation, who gently held Jen’s face, leaned in, and said, “Welcome, we’re so glad you’re here.”  

And in that same sermon, Jen talked about how Thomas Potter, on the shores of New Jersey, over 200 years ago, welcomed the Universalist preacher John Murray in his own cupped hands, saying to John Murray, “Welcome, I’ve been waiting for you.”  

You see, Thomas Potter believed in Universalism, the idea that God loves everyone, no exceptions, and he’d built a chapel for such a message to be preached in; and he was sure that John Murray was that preacher.
I’ve had dozens of conversations with many of you in the past two weeks, and this image – cupped hands - has resonated deeply.

Cupped hands. Love’s hands: welcoming, holding.  If you open these hands wider, and then wider still – then the cupped hands become Love’s embracing circle. And that – that sense of expanding the embrace - that points to the heart of our work as people of faith.  

What is that work, exactly? The work is becoming Love’s people, of casting a wide circle, and saying, “Come in; know that you are held by a love that will not let you go.”This points to the heart of our faith. Indeed, our central religious claim is that we are all Love’s people. That Love (or God), holds all of us, no exceptions.  That’s our religious claim. We are all Love’s people.
As Love’s people, we come together, here, to do holy work:

We welcome, affirm, and protect the light in each human heart. 
We act boldly outside our walls. 
We listen with our whole being to where Love is calling us next. 

We’ve been about this work for 153 years, and it is more important now than ever before. This is the foundation of our faith.

Two weeks ago, Jen Crow spoke about John Murray, one of the founders of American Universalism. And today, I want to tell you about another one of our founders – a man named Hosea Ballou. Ballou, like Murray, didn’t start out as a Universalist.  But in his early years, Ballou had a conversion moment, a turning in his heart. He understood through study and personal experience, that the God of wrath preached by angry ministers was a human-made God, a false God.  By removing the false teachings and the flawed, theology, Ballou felt the enduring God of love.  It was a powerful experience for him.

Once he began to preach and believe that once we know ourselves fully and deeply loved, then we are able to love, to do good in the world. Perhaps impossible to believe, but true, insisted Ballou.

To give you a sense of his fervent believe in Universalism, let me tell you a story. One day, he was out riding on the preaching circuit (preaching Universalism), when he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. The farmer, it turns out, was in deep distress. He confided to Ballou that his son was a terror who got drunk in the village every night and who fooled around with women. The farmer was afraid the son would go to hell.

"All right," said Ballou with a serious face. "We'll find a place on the path where your son will be coming home drunk, and we'll build a big fire, and when he comes home, we'll grab him and throw him into it."
The farmer was shocked: "That's my son and I love him!” Ballou said, "If you, a human and imperfect father, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him in the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, a perfect father, would do so!" (as told by the Rev. Linda Stowell).

Obviously, we no longer think of God as a father. But this story speaks to the heart of our faith: Hell is not in the equation. Knowing we are loved, the church, then, becomes a place where we practice truly becoming Love’s people. Church is where we bring our broken, hurt, and confused selves, and where we learn to hold each other in cupped hands, where we learn we can rest in a deep ocean of love.We believe in a God, or a Love, that holds ALL souls, not just SOME souls.This understanding impacts all we do.

So today, through the lens of our Universalist faith, I want to speak about the two proposed Amendments to our State Constitution that will be on the ballot in November.

“But aren’t these political issues?” you might be asking. Yes; and they are clearly religious issues, as well, because at the heart of both of these amendments, there is a question about inclusion, about who is worthy of love and dignity, about who can easily participate in our democracy;  in a real sense, these amendments are about who’s in and who’s out.

And I want to remind you, in case you don’t know, that at our annual meeting in June, this congregation passed resolutions in opposition to both these amendments. The first Amendment, as many of you know, is the Marriage Prohibition Amendment.  This Amendment which would change the State Constitution to prohibit same gender couples from marrying. It asks, “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?"

Before I dig into the religious issues here, this is what you need to know: 
  • Should this Amendment pass, it means that the Government is essentially taking religious sides, saying that one particular religious interpretation belongs in our State Constitution. 
  •  Constitutions are about protecting freedoms and rights, not taking them away.

There’s more I could say, but I want to talk about this Amendment from a faith perspective, not a secular one.

Some of you may have seen on Facebook that I recently joined 150 other clergy, just outside the State Fair Grounds, at a Press Conference.  Together, as a people of Faith, we said that we believe in a God of Love, of inclusion, that love and commitment are sacred and that all loving people should be able to get married.
This Amendment, if passed, would cast a very tight circle, that would hold some, but others would be permanently excluded from. 

My Universalist faith compels me to vote “No” on the Marriage Prohibition Amendment.” My Universalist faith says, “When I take my faith in to the voting booth, I want to expand the circle of inclusion, of the circle Love, not shrink it.”   

And when I go into the voting booth, I’m thinking of so many of you, and so many on our staff, that are in committed, loving relationships with a same gender partners.  You raise children, you take care of your neighbors, you contribute to our community - and your love and commitment is real and holy. I will vote “No,” on this Amendment.

And the only way we’ll defeat this Amendment is if we talk with others to share how we, as people of faith, believe in a God of inclusion and love, and how we believe marriage is a sacred covenant between two loving people.

You might be thinking: “I don’t know who to talk to?”

Well, have you talked to your neighbors? Your co-workers? Have you talked to the barista you see every day, or the parents you know from your children’s classes? If you’re feeling stuck, try this: when someone at the grocery checkout, or anywhere else says, “How you doing?” You can say, “Well, as a person of faith, I’ve been thinking about why I’m voting NO on the Marriage Amendment.” Bam - there you go, conversation started!

There are undecided religious people out there, torn between what they have been told the Bible says, and their lived experience of knowing and loving a gay or lesbian person. Your conversation might move them to vote “No.”

This is Love’s work in the world.

The second Amendment on the Ballot is the Voter ID Amendment, which is in many ways, perhaps worse the Marriage Amendment. While this Amendment might seem sensible on the surface, it’s actually terrible for our democracy and election participation.

Some quick background on this Amendment:  The Voter ID Amendment claims to be about stopping voter fraud, and thus would require that everyone to show a government issued photo-id before they vote.
Seems harmless, right? Proponents of this Amendment claim that’s it’s about preventing Voter Fraud. But voter fraud is not a problem is MN, or the rest of the country.

Here’s what true: Since 2000, in Minnesota there have been 10 total cases of reported fraud, and no cases of voter impersonation.  Nationally, since 2000, there have ten cases of voter impersonation. That’s out of 150,000,000 registered voters. One impersonation out of 15 million prospective voters.  In the 2008 U.S. Senate election recount, lawyers for both Norm Coleman and Al Franken looked for fraud in the election – looked hard for fraud - and, they found none.

Voter fraud and voter impersonation is not a problem in MN or in the country. Maybe some of you have seen the Jon Stewart piece, on the Daily Show, about all of this concern about voter fraud and these Voter ID amendments that are being passed in other states.

He says this is like making peanut butter with tons of hydrochloric acid to dissolve any potential dragon bones that might have gotten in there in the manufacturing process. Will you lose some people who will die from eating hydrochloric acid? Of course. But isn’t it worth knowing that your peanut butter is dragon bone free?

There are no dragons, and there is no voter fraud.          

That’s not what this Amendment is about. This Amendment is about putting barriers in place to make it harder to vote for certain people. It would prevent balance access for Minnesotans without a current address on their ID.

Here’s what that looks like according to the League of WomenVoters: This would have a significant impact on elderly citizens. On college age student. On eligible African American citizens.  On people with housing instability, men and women serving overseas, and many others do not currently have a government issued photo ID with their current name and address.  This could impact 500,000 people in MN. And if passed, this Amendment would essentially eliminate same day registration and voting – an incredible strength of our current system. 

If passed, the Government would be required to issue free IDs (we’d pay for those through increased property taxes) – but citizens would have to pay for the documents they need to get an ID, such as a certified birth certificate. For many, this would, in essence, be a 21st century poll tax – the price you pay to vote.

In light of the suffrage movement and the civil rights movement, and the steps we’ve taken as a country to eliminated barriers to voting, this is a huge step backwards. Our democracy and hundreds of thousands of citizens would pay a huge price as we solved a “problem” that doesn’t even exist.

There are no dragons. There is no voter fraud. That’s the background.

And here’s why this is a faith issue for me: when I walk into the voting booth, as a person of faith, I want to stand on the Side of Love. As a person of faith, I ask myself, if this Amendment passes, does the circle of inclusion shrink, and push people out, for no good reason, or does it expand? If we’re called to be Love’s people in the world, then I think we have to say, “We stand with all people, and every vote and voice matters - nothing is broken, so leave it alone!” Love’s people draw a circle that takes everyone in. Love’s people say, “We’re making room at the Welcome Table, and at the voting table.”

And for those of you who are interested, we have a chance to act on this issue. Members of the Community and the Kingfield Neighborhood will be gathering between 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. at the Sabathani Center at 3rd Ave South 38th Street, just a few miles from here.  We’ll gather to march to Martin Luther King Park at 40th and Nicollet, where we’re hear speakers and rally together to say NO to Photo ID.

I’ll be there, wearing my yellow standing on the side of love t-shirt. I hope some of you will join me as well.  

Let me end with another story about Hosea Ballou.

He was riding his horse on the preaching circuit in the New Hampshire hills one afternoon with a Baptist preacher.They argued theology as they traveled. At one point, the Baptist looked over and said, "Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle, and ride away, and I'd still go to heaven."

Hosea Ballou, quick on his feet, looked over at him and said, "If you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you." (As told by the Rev. Elizabeth Strong.)

We’re Universalists. And love is our guide.
And we’re here to say: There is no hell. There are no dragons and there is no voter problem.  And there is no reason to amend our constitution to limit the freedom to marry.