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Category Archives: religious

What Church is for me

(A disclaimer to this post – I grew up going to church.  I went with my father.  And some of my earliest memories are sitting on his lap, wrapped in his arms, playing with his thumbs, smelling his aftershave and  the detergent my mom used on the wash, while listening to the music.  Church for me was first, and foremost a place of safety, of warmth, of love.  And I have never really lost that feeling completely.  I know that this is not true for many, many people.)

As of late there is a phrase I hear a lot, “spiritual but not religious.”  That is how people often describe themselves to me.    It makes sense that I hear that phrase a lot, first of all I am a minister in a Unitarian Universalist congregation.  A place filled with folks who are spiritual but not religious.  But also people tend to get a bit defensive about themselves around me.  They often seem to act as if they somehow need to explain themselves to me, as if I am going to immediately judge them for who they are or what they do.  It has taken me a long time to realize that I am not that kind of person, and I am not that kind of minister.  By and large, I meet people where they are.  I don’t hold up a lot of standards defined by categories like “If you are a Christian then you must behave this way, or if you are a UU then you must behave this way.”  I think that I recognize that we come in all shapes, sizes and variations.  That we are all trying our best and most days most of do do our best and most days a few of us don’t and most days one or two of us will really screw up.  But then I know tomorrow is another chance to do a bit better.

I used to like the phrase spiritual but not religious a lot.  It seemed to me that it described a person who was  a free thinker and feeler, perhaps less constrained by the negativity of institutional religion (of which there is a lot!)  I used to connect it with folks who were more interested in connecting with the positive loving force (who I call God) of the universe.  Perhaps I have just heard the phrase too much and I am getting a bit jaded.  Now I am beginning to be concerned that the phrase is beginning to become code for “I don’t want to be judged by you about why I don’t participate in church.”

I guess I would have to say that in some strange way I am not so interested in why people don’t come to church, specifically why they don’t come to the church I work at.  I am way more interested in why the people who are here, do come to our congregation.  I am way more interested in what makes us who we are in a positive way, what are our strengths.  I am way more interested in building on those.

If someone chooses not to come to this place, it may be our loss, it may be their loss, but I completely respect that choice.  Let us each find our own place of spiritual nurturance.  Let us each find the well from which we each can draw.

That being said I have a hard time understanding “Spiritual but not Religious.”  I accept  it and I respect it.  I am not asking anyone to change I just don’t get it, I can’t see me explaining myself that way.

I do get that there are times to be by oneself.  I write this column after taking some extra efforts to be outside on the balcony of my church building so that I can absorb the spring sun, watch and hear the creek, listen to the birds and watch the bees chase each other.  Each summer I spend a lot of time at a lake nearby just watching.  I watch the sunrise, I watch the sunset.  I watch the blue heron, the beavers, the kingfishers, the neighbors.  I watch the sun filter through tree leaves, and watch dark and light play together.  It is my sacred space and I go there often.

I have a neighbor at the lake I hang out at who says his dock is his church.  If I ever had the nerve to engage him on that one here is what I would say:

This dock is not your church.  It is your sacred space.  It is where you are most at home with yourself, and where you can touch that which is larger than yourself.  It is your sacred space and it should be – every square inch of it.  It is where you go to let go of the effect of the work a day world that eats away at you.  It is where you go to restore yourself.  It is your sacred space.  And you deserve it.

But church is where you go to be with other people.  It is where we bring ourselves with all our quirks and shortcomings where we will be accepted, affirmed and appreciated.  It is where you come when you know where you are going and when you don’t know where you are going.  Church is where you go to share yourselves with others and they with you.  Sometimes you go there so that folks can hold you up when you are to tired to go on your own and sometimes you go there so that you can hold someone else up.  Church is where people bring you food when there is a tragedy in your life, or when there is a celebration.  Church is where people are imperfect and cranky and sometimes mean and they are loved anyway, and hopefully reminded that maybe tomorrow they could take a deep breath and try again, a bit better.  Church is where you go to meet with and be with folks who are authentically themselves warts and all.

We come to church, with who we are, imperfect, a little or a lot broken and we are loved.  There is no entry exam to church, no application process.  It is not a club, or a training center.  It is a place to be yourself.

And I would even go so far as to say that if your church (if you participate in one) is not that, or if that has not been your experience of church then maybe you might try somewhere else.  Don’t bang your head against the wall just try to find a doorway to a different kind of place.

Maybe I have been lucky enough to find religious communities that are particularly inclusive and accepting.   Maybe I have been lucky enough to make that choice over and over again.  If someone is particularly close minded or judgmental I don’t spend a lot of time hanging out with them.  My life is too short for that.  I hope I am not disrespectful or mean.  But in the journey that is my life iI would much rather hang with folks who can laugh at their own foibles, love foibles in others, and who work hard to try to improve the world around them. My nineties but still my life is too time limited to spend it gossiping and judging others.

The Surprise of Easter

I preached this sermon on 4/8/12 at Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC, in Syracuse NY.  My text was Mark 16:1-8.


Easter is my favorite Christian holiday.  For some it is Christmas, for some it is Pentecost, for some it is Maundy Thursday.  But for me it is Easter

Perhaps it comes from my all too lived sense of my own imperfection.  I know each day I wake up I will mess up each and every day. You ever have one of those days –  You know you burn the toast, You forgot to do the wash, you can’t find two shoes from the same pair, and you forgot to charge the  phone and it goes dead, all before you get to the work of the day!  I’ve even developed a little thing I say to myself.

So as I drive away from my house and check my rear view mirror and see the coffee mug flying off the back of my car I say to myself -“Well if that is the worst thing I do today this is going to be a great day.”

It is why I like Easter.  It is the Christian, theological existential cosmic do-over.  We all get a second chance.  I don’t know about you but for me – I just feel myself start to breathe a little deeper and slower.  I don’t have to make it all perfect.  There are do-overs!

I also like Easter because even though it is at the core of our faith it is one of the most paganized of Christian holidays.  The word Easter comes from the Northern European pagan celebration of  Ostara.  And from what little research I have done it seems that she was a goddess related to the spring.

Jacob Grimm writes

Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of up springing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the christian’s God. Bonfires were lighted at Easter and according to popular belief of long standing, the moment the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, she gives three joyful leaps, she dances for joy … Water drawn on the Easter morning is, like that at Christmas, holy and healing … here also heathen notions seems to have grafted themselves on great christian festivals. Maidens clothed in white, who at Easter, at the season of returning spring, show themselves in clefts of the rock and on mountains, are suggestive of the ancient goddess. (

Evidently the Easter dress is part of a very long tradition as are bunnies and eggs, None of them Christian in their origin.

It speaks to the power of this message of Easter, that of new life and a second chance, that it can pull in powerful imagery and words from other religions and still be its own holiday.

It is highly possible that Easter held its own because it had the Roman Empire to protect it.  But I would like to believe that it is more than that.

“Morna D. Hooker calls Mark’s ending “theologically profound” because of the paradoxical promise to believe first and then to see: “Mark insists that we must finish the story for ourselves, by setting out on the way of discipleship” (New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels). One more voice calling us back to the way of discipleship, to following Jesus, and to a faith that is trust.”  (Kate Huey Weekly Seeds April 8 2012

There is the element of surprise in Mark’s gospel.  He leaves the end untold. He does not tell us what the surprise is – The surprise is ours to find.

I find the ending of Mark’s gospel so compelling.  Originally Mark’s gospel ended where our reading ended today, with the empty tomb.  There was no sighting of the risen Jesus.  No one had touched his wounds.  There was only the hope that he had risen, not the promise fulfilled.

I find this compelling because today in conversations with folks I often get the question do you really believe in the actual physical resurrection.  Seemingly Our world of faith has been polarized into two camps those who would believe that the bible is a written history true in every word, and those who cannot believe the phooey of the miracle stories, those stories that fly in the face of our Western 21st century science.

There seems to be no middle ground.  And yet that is where I want to be.  I want to live in the surprise of Easter.  Imagine what it would have been like to be the women who came to the tomb.  They were not coming expecting to see something spectacular.  Their hearts were heavy.  And they were coming as early as possible, perhaps to avoid the authorities. They were coming to do their chore, the thing that women were expected to do.  They were coming to prep a dead body.  A body that had belonged to someone they loved and revered,but a dead body none the less.  I don’t know if it was normally a heavy burden for these women but I would think on that day it was.  They were scared, they knew the authorities would be watching.  They had to be careful.  And most of all they were alone.  And they would need help moving that heavy stone. They were really worried about that stone.

So imagine that someone you loved had died.  Imagine that they had died in the hospital.  Imagine that you are going into their room for one more goodbye.  Imagine that you are grieving.  And then imagine that you walk in the hospital room and the body is gone.  The bed is not made things look a bit amiss.  What might be your first reaction?  Confusion – where is it? Fear – Oh no what if it is lost?   Anger – How could the staff has messed this up?

Would your reactions include – Joy and exhalation in the resurrection of the person you love.  I think not.  For most of us almost all of the time death is a very final thing in terms of living here on this earth.

And I suspect that it was not that different for these women.  Fear, confusion, anger.  But no immediate joy.

Marks leaves the answer to us – What happened and what does it mean?

I cannot answer Mark’s question for you but I can answer it for myself:

Jesus is not Lord to me, or at least he is not a sedentary Lord who sits in his throne detached from this world, his travails and sacrifice over, resting on his laurels, waiting for the Holy Sprit to get in the game and pick up the ball. ” [Lord and King]  these words being the designations of an empire, the secular mantle used to justify him for disciples disillusioned by his failure to return. Brought before Pontius Pilate, Jesus was mocked and discredited by the titles and symbols of kingship: a crown of thorns, a purple robe, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (John 19:1-3). And for centuries that mocking imagery has obscured the truth, …  and blunted the power of what he did and what he taught.” ( Wendy Fitting UU world 11/9/09)

“The resurrection represents the living presence of Jesus, an ongoing and unsealed revelation of God’s compelling love. He is risen indeed, not to a sedentary throne in heaven, but into my life and alive everywhere that evil is persistently resisted and everywhere that a revolution for goodness is thoughtfully engaged. According to biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, Jesus was a peasant, a revolutionary whose message was one of radical inclusiveness.” (Wendy Fitting UU world 11/9/09)

I don’t know what the resurrection meant to Jesus disciples, and I don’t know what the women at the tomb felt or experienced when they got to the empty tomb.  I wasn’t there.  I can only imagine what I might feel in that situation.

I was speaking with a young women a couple of weeks ago.  She was facing one of those adult decisions, college was ending, and she was unsure.  Actually she was more than unsure she was panicked.  Emotionally she was doing what cornered animals were doing – thrashing about.  She was frightened, fearful, what if her b/f didn’t hang around, what if she couldn’t find a job, should she go to grad school, what if she had to move back home.  She was frightened – where were the promises, where was her safety net.  What was going to hold her up.

There wasn’t a darn thing I could do for her, really.  I could listen.  I could tell her it would be OK.  I could say that in 20 years this will just be one blip.  But I couldn’t take her fear away, I wouldn’t take her fear away.  She was afraid of the unknown of the surprises that might be ahead. Surprises can bring on fear not always joy.

There is the leap of faith that God calls us to.  God was calling her.  And if it is truly going to be a leap of faith you cannot leap thinking Oh I know it will be OK I know that I will be safe.  God will hold me, or God will give me wings.  It is a truth in life that first you leap and then you get wings.  and in between those two movements is a fear that sucks the breath out of you and leaves you flying through your existence with a panic that will keep you up for hours on end.  In my theology the human nature of Jesus could not believe or understand that he would be resurrected, no matter how much careful listening and talking his godly nature did.  Jesus took that leap of faith for us and has lit the way.  We know that it can be done.  We know that there is the ontological do-over.

That doesn’t make it any less scary.  Make me new?  I like myself I’ve worked hard to see the beauty in my imperfections.  Be made new?  I don’t want to have to get to know someone new.  What if all the rules change, what if I don’t know what to do, Like the young woman I was talking to it leaves me in a panic.  I thrash about reach out to my go to comforts, too much coffee and pedantic Tv.

Marks gospel does not do much to assuage the fear of the resurrection, the fear of surprise.

Mark’s narrative as we have it now ends as abruptly as it began. There was no introduction or background to Jesus’ arrival, and none for his departure. No one knew where he came from; no one knows where he has gone; and not many understood him when he was here. (Richard A. Burridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus? A Symbolic Reading (2nd ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 64-65.)

So for me what it the surprise of Easter?  The gift is the do-ver, the chance to live again.  That life will come out of tragedy.  Death is not the final answer.  That is the gift.

But the surprise is this:

What Jesus is offering is an invitation to a relationship. Far from worshipping a king trapped in untouchable heavenly glory, this relationship is present and challenging.
Dorothee Sölle—“When He Came”
He needs you

that’s all there is to it

without you he’s left hanging

goes up in dachau’s smoke

is sugar and spice in the baker’s hand

gets revalued in the next stock market crash

he’s consumed and blown away

used up

without you

help him

that’s what faith is

he can’t bring it about

his kingdom

couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now

not at any rate without you

and that is his irresistible appeal

So what will you do with this relationship to Jesus.  What will it mean to you?  How will it change you?  You only get the second chance if you take it.  And so I say take it.  Live the resurrection each and every day.  Be afraid of the leap, for it is scary.  But do not be afraid of the wings for they are your salvation.

RE at May Memorial It’s GREAT!

Sunday at May Memorial can mean different things to different people.  For some it is a time to gather with out liberal community, for some it is a time to listen and think, for others it is the enjoyment of the music, and some come for the coffee.

Our Sixth grade Sunday school class made this video.  They made me proud and captured the spirit of our community.  We had them filming our congregation for many Sundays and then they edited and here is what they made: