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I mentioned that this post would be about the power of naming.  The past month has been a season of naming many different things.  Some of these things have been easy to name; some have been painful to prize from the soil of ourselves.

I would like to name a lot of things, too many things to hold in a single blog post.  So I return to a favorite word from my childhood and offer it to you:

Aloha.

This word works because it holds so many meanings:  hello, goodbye, I love you, take care.  Yet the word also evokes the qualities of a soft voice, a warm hug, and a string of flowers.  I wish that I could place a garland of plumeria blossoms over all of your shoulders and say my blessing to you.  I will do this in my mind.  In person, I will simply say, “Aloha.”

This is my last blog post for Houston Kahu.  In the future you can find me blogging by the sea at Charleston Kahu.  I will no longer be Covenant’s minister; just a friend and fellow traveler.

Over the next few weeks, we will find ways of blessing each other for the paths ahead.  You are welcome to name what you need to name here, to bless what you need to bless, and to share what you need to share.

I am grateful to have shared ten years of life and ministry with you.

J

Over the past few weeks, I have listened to many of you share your joys and sorrows during this time of transition.  Some are energized by the changes and others are deeply anxious.  With this in mind, I am doing my best to hear and respond to the many different expressions of Covenant members.

I think the best thing we can model together is a gentle spirit, an openness to each other, and a willingness to name what we need.  Some have needed the creativity we’ve been trying; some need more familiar structure upon which to lean.  So in the weeks to come, I’d like to adjust in the hope that it will be helpful to all (a familiar feeling after ten years in this wildly diverse community).

With regard to the forms and symbols of our ritual life together, I will steer us back toward the familiar in an acknowledgment that much of what is dear to us has not changed now and will not change come April.  With regard to the earnest sharing of our human life together, I will move the creativity into the pastoral prayer in an attempt to name the complexities of saying goodbye and setting out on separate (even if kindred) paths.

Next week I’ll blog about the power of naming, and I will invite conversation about naming where we are as a way of preparing for the path ahead.  This Sunday my prayer will be a spontaneous one, made of a month’s worth of laughter and tears, so many conversations with so many dear ones.  March is our month to grieve, to questions, to bless, and to begin trusting in an unscripted future.  March is our month to hold hands with the past and the future, feeling the tug of each as we try to keep our feet on the ground.  March is our moment is our moment for the taking, a time to name our loves as clearly as we are able.

With eyes open.  And with aloha,

J

from last year's march at the courthouse

One of the things I have learned from the welcoming and affirming movement is that liberation is for everybody.  The movement was started as a way of fully celebrating and including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in the church.  After generations of exclusion, derision, and violence at the hands of religion, many religious communities have evolved into a deeper understanding and inclusion of members of every sexual orientation and identity.  It is often difficult to put this into words, but, as a straight man, I have found myself more free, more liberated, and more honest by living and working in a community that welcomes all.

It reminds me a bit of Dr. King mentioning that the Civil Rights Movement was for white people, too.  When one person is treated with dignity, all of us can raise our heads a little higher.  For ten years I have been proud to be in a church that not only welcomes all on Sunday morning, but actively works for equal civil rights in every other area of society.

This Sunday we’ll revisit one of the sermons that evokes the ongoing struggle for justice in the church and the larger community.  If you’re like me, then your heart may jump to consider all of the progress we’ve made; it may also be brought a bit low by how much work we still have to do.  For in my time at Covenant we have celebrated same gender weddings and also mourned the victims of hate crimes at community vigils.  We have been served communion by gay deacons and also been turned away from the courthouse with those applying for county marriage licenses.  We have proclaimed a gospel of love for every person and also listened to our politicians continually pander to fear and prejudice.

It makes me wonder this week about what’s next.  I won’t be with Covenant in the years to come.  I will be doing equally inclusive work in Charleston.  But the relevant questions for the Covenant community are:  What are the next steps for us to take in public witness?  How will the circle of beloved community be widened?  Who may not feel fully included and how might we make room for him or her?  Where can we push our thinking beyond the easy confines of cultural liberalism to the radical free space of liberation theology?  Where does Covenant go from here on the welcoming and affirming path?

I invite you to join in the conversation.  Let’s consider the questions together as we move toward Sunday.

With aloha,

J

Yesterday one of the members of my Mutual Ministries Committee offered a strange blessing.  In the midst of a conversation about where we are as a church and what this moment of transition might mean, the committee encouraged me to model the spontaneity I’ve been talking about.

The group mentioned that they appreciated my Sunday comments about why I was choosing to revisit certain texts and themes, the way I was open to an unscripted conversation with the community, and the possibilities of the rare moment in which we find ourselves.  Then came the blessing.  “You’re free,” said one of the committee members.  “You’re free.”

This was followed by a chorus of voices encouraging me to continue departing from the script.  You have asked us to be truly present to this moment, they said.  Let’s do that.

I walked out of the meeting feeling strangely energized.  We had closed with a prayer that we might see anew the ways we free each other and the ways we still hold each other back by falling into familiar forms and symbols without realizing that this is a time of rare gifts and opportunities.

With all of this in mind, I’ll introduce a few creative changes into my last weeks at Covenant.  Some worship elements will move around and some will be temporarily shelved as we make room for real conversations.  Consider with me a sermon dialogue during the service, a spontaneous and community led prayer, or a time for children when I talk to the kids about what it’s like to be a minister.  This moment seems too good to miss.  Let’s have some fun with it.  Let’s leave room for it to be its own kind of blessing without trying to control it too carefully.  This is a growing edge for Covenant.  So let’s gather at the edge for a few weeks.

It is my custom to end every blog post with a question.  This is one of my last posts for Covenant, and I pose a few questions that have been at the center of my experience here:  What things do you grasp too tightly?  What do you try to control?  And how do you learn to loosen your grip, let go, and find the freedom that lies beyond certainty?

I can’t wait to read your answers.  More importantly, I can’t wait to see you in church as we try a few new things.

With aloha,

J

the labyrinth at Covenant

Over the next few weeks, as my ministry focuses on transition, I’ll spend my time recycling papers, packing boxes, meeting with people, sharing meals, preparing written material for the council, and so on.  I won’t have the usual amount of time to spend on creative writing, so I am seizing the rare opportunity to revisit a few of my favorite pieces of writing.

As I consider ten years of writing, a few favorite sermons spring immediately to mind:  the story of a poignant episode of M*A*S*H woven into the Hebrew lament tradition, a description of a baseball game as an existential object lesson in living with ambiguity, an image of Harvey Milk as a patron saint of gay and straight liberation, a scene of a woman on the edge suddenly bowled over by the starry night sky.

Other writing comes to mind as well.  So many years.  So many pages.  And only time to offer a glimpse of the theology that holds them all together.

I am mostly decided on the shape of the next few weeks.  But I write to ask those of you who have listened to or read my sermons which ones made an impression on you.  What stories moved you?  What questions haunted you?  What theology did you hear in the stories we’ve been telling together?

After so many years of writing, I can’t wait to read you answers.

With aloha,

J

As I looked over the children’s artwork , I wondered if they or their parents had really understood the assignment.  The homework sheet asked the children to create something expressing their hope on Martin Luther King Day.  I had been excited to see what preschoolers would create; how King’s radical message might translate into the terms of a four-year old’s daily experience.  Yet much of the art didn’t seem to deal with the theme at all.

Many of the pictures expressed hope for things the children might receive, almost like letters to Santa.  Rather than tying into a larger story, kids colored a world where their own individual preferences were met (preferences for lovely things, like cake and puppies, but not necessarily things that had to do with Martin Luther King).  Standing in contrast to the array of wish lists was one boy’s art.  He hoped, he wrote, for a world without any jails.  Martin Luther King had been taken to jail for doing the right thing.  And he hoped that that would not happen to anyone again.  I also learned from the artist that Martin Luther King taught people to be peaceful, which was a very important thing to remember and a very difficult thing to put into practice.  I should say that the children are very perceptive in conversation; I often talk to them when I am dropping off or picking up.  So perhaps the candy-coated artwork was just a misunderstood assignment.

It made me wonder, of course, how often we all misunderstand the assignment when it comes to Dr. King.  So I would like to ask you what the Montessori teachers asked their kids:  What do you hope this Martin Luther King Day?  Let’s think and talk together.

With aloha,

J

As I reflect on ten years of ministry at Covenant Church, I return to a favorite question that I have put to many of you over and over again:  What are you reading?  I call to mind the wheelbarrows full of books I’ve read, the ideas they put forth, the discussions that ensued, and, most importantly, the ways they changed my living.

The great Unitarian ethicist James Luther Adams is reported to have quipped that he believed in salvation by bibliography.  Sometimes I feel like that.  (If you’re ever looking for me and can’t find me, try, in order: my home library, my office library, Brazos Bookstore, the Fondren Library, the Montrose library, Half Price Books…)  I have spent a good deal of my life with the writings and ideas of others, joining in a great company of theologians, storytellers, and poets sharing their questions and observations.  So just for fun, I thought I’d offer my top ten books of these ten years of ministry.  Each of these books has been something I’ve read and reread, and a few of the authors have become my teachers and friends.  Here goes:

A Case for God by Karen Armstrong – This book strikes me as a perfect example of scholarship in the service of compassion.  Reading the book was like taking a divinity school course; finishing it, I was left with the persistent question of the real effects of my religious practice.

A Feminist Ethic of Risk by Sharon Welch – Welch’s move from an ethic of control to an ethic of risk (and its constituent elements of storytelling, playfulness, witness, and resilience) strikes a deeper chord with me than any work of ethics I have ever read.  This book is foundational to my theology.

A Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places by Gary Nabhan and Stephen Trimble – This book shaped my thinking on children’s need for time outdoors; it also evoked many memories of my own early relationships with the non-human world (Kailua Bay, the Koolau range, and my backyard).

In the beginning…Creativity by Gordon Kaufman – A dense but extraordinary text written near the end of Kaufman’s theological career.  The Prologue, “The Word ‘God,'” is worth the price of admission, offering both an historical survey and a number of relevant options for the present moment, each one informed by an evolutionary view of the cosmos and the natural world.

Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh – An open-hearted appreciation of two great teachers and traditions, encouraging mindful, compassionate living in the here and now.  I think I read this book once a year.

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand – A vibrant intellectual history of American pragmatism.  Though there are dozens of excellent volumes on theological pragmatism, Menand’s blending of ideas, history, and personal narrative is irresistible.

Moby Dick: or, The Whale by Herman Melville – What can I say?  I love Melville so much that I read big chunks of his prose aloud to anyone who will listen.  There are too many themes to mention, too many characters to name, but above all Melville deals with the deep ambiguity of existence.  We talked about this book for an entire weekend at the men’s retreat.  But we were just getting started…

Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker – The book reminds us that all theology must answer to lived experience.  Brock and Parker share from their stories and the experiences of women with whom they have worked, critiquing the ways that religion still supports and sanctions unspeakable violence.  This may be the only work of theology that has ever made me weep.

The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough – This book is something of a sacred text to religious naturalists.  Goodenough’s combination of hard science (she is a cellular biologist at Washington University in St. Louis) and personal meditation is deeply affecting.  While Goodenough is a nontheist, her brand of religious naturalism leaves room for many; she’s more Mary Oliver than Richard Dawkins.

The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King – In the wry voice of indigenous wisdom, King raises deep questions about how we tell stories and why.  His prose is painful and prophetic, and his primary concern, offered in the form of a call and response, still haunts me.  “Need a different ethic?” he asks.  “Tell a different story.”

My question this week, then, is the same as always:  What are you reading?  What books have most influenced your thinking and living over the past few years?

With a bow to readers and writers everywhere.  And with aloha,

J

Stevens Creek Reservoir, San Jose

I’m just back from a week spent with family in Northern California.  It was good to be with grandparents, to slow our pace to that of Scrabble games and scattered Legos on the carpet.  As is our custom, we went for walks every day, including a few hikes in the nearby hills.  I am always nourished by time in that place, and I usually call to mind the words of the great Zen poet Gary Snyder, who walked many a Bay Area trail.  Snyder’s poem, “For All,” was written with the Rockies in mind, but the joy it describes is akin to my own when I’m out of doors:

Rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters /stones turn underfoot, small and hard as toes / cold nose dripping / singing inside / creek music, heart music / smell of sun on gravel. / I pledge allegiance.

Near the end of the week, I realized that I hadn’t seen a television once.  I had also left my computer at home; my smartphone lay unchecked most of every day.  Now I’m no Luddite (Luddites don’t blog), but what struck me was how distracted my mind can become following its usual routines.  Daily I move from one device to the next, answering texts and e-mails, planning meetings and updating calendars, even sending sweet photos to friends and grandparents.  The technology connects me to others and makes my life more efficient.  But that’s not all it does.

I have felt more and more over the past few years the need to provide a balance to technology’s pace.  So I return to the quiet walk and the silent prayer, times spent allowing my mind to disconnect from the dozens of rapid-fire communiques and reconnect with the world of ordinary objects and experiences.  I center myself in the words on the page of a gospel, turning them over in my mind as one would hold a koan.  I direct my attention to the subtle change in the season, noticing each day’s slight lengthening after solstice.  I listen to the sounds of crushed leaves underfoot as I walk outside to pick up the paper, pausing to look up at the doves alighting on a bare branch.  Later in the day, I am back in the game, computing as always.  But I most often balance this with some slowness in the morning or evening (or both).

The last morning of our trip I read Pico Iyer’s beautiful Op-Ed, “The Joy of Quiet,” in the New York Times.  He wrote of the need to temporarily disconnect from certain technologies in order to reconnect with a deeper reality.  In Iyer’s words, “Nothing makes me feel better – calmer, clearer, and happier – than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music.  It’s actually something deeper than mere happiness:  it’s joy, which the monk David Steindl-Rast describes as ‘that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.'”

This year I’m wondering about how best to strike a balance between the whirlwind world of the virtual and the quieter, contemplative, joyful world that can only be found by those who will find the time to unplug themselves.  I pledge allegiance with the poet to the smell of trees, the sound of gravel, and the feel of warm sunlight falling across the trail.

My simple question this week:  What have you found helpful in your own search for balance?  (I’ll be online just enough to read your answers.)

With aloha,

J

view from an evening walk

I have been following the global climate talks in Durban, South Africa with intense interest.  The coverage of the talks, when it can be found at all, casts our response to climate change primarily in political and economic terms.  How will countries reach new treaty agreements?  What is the fair share for developed countries (like us) who have contributed most to the problem versus developing countries who seek to improve their standard of living?  Will we find the political will to make the changes necessary before it is too late?  And when will it be too late?  These are vital questions, but I find myself approaching this moment a bit differently.

I wonder how to respond spiritually to an Earth that is suffering.  More and more, I am convinced that how I live is my best response to climate change.  A part of how I live includes calling my representatives, meeting with them, posting Op-Eds, and rallying my friends.  But a deeper part of how I live includes how I relate to the whole, how I see myself as a part of the story and learn to live more gently on the Earth, mindful of its needs.  It’s a move from what professor Bron Taylor calls “green religion (which posits that environmentally friendly behavior is a religious obligation)” to “dark green religion (in which nature is sacred, has intrinsic value, and is therefore due reverent care).” (Taylor, 10)

It seems to me that what we lack is the dark green sense that nature is sacred.  It seems to me that it is too easy for us to forget what our ancestors knew, everyone from the wandering Hebrews to the First Nations peoples of this continent:  that we belong to the Earth, not the other way around.

As I tune in to the climate talks, I am also tuning in to my own inner sense of connectedness; I am asking about my own response.  And here I begin to review my actions, asking of each if it expresses relatedness.  Starting small, I map out the week and consider how many times I need to take car.  I ensure that cloth bags are on hand for my trip to the grocery, where I will try and pay attention to how and where the food is sourced.  (For beer enthusiasts, I’ll also take my reusable growler to be refilled with local ale or look for something with the “Go Texan” regional agriculture label.)  Moving on, I ask about how many Christmas presents we need and how we might also give to groups working for environmental protection.  When we travel to be with relatives, I am looking at the best ways to pay carbon offsets and/or plant trees to help balance out our carbon footprint.  I do not write about these things so that you will think well of me; I write about these things so that together we might continue to brainstorm.  What else can we do as individuals?  What else can we do as a church?

Every action is a prayer.

What ideas do you have?

J

See Bron Taylor, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

I can’t remember when it started exactly, but, once my eyes drifted to the stilted syntax, I couldn’t turn them away.  After years of study in liberal Christian contexts, I read the Bible in the New Revised Standard Version.  The NRSV has been the standard issue in American divinity schools for a generation; when I read it, I often evened out the translation by replacing all of the male pronouns with gender-free nouns and changing the all-caps “LORD” (denoting the Hebrew “YHWH”) to “Adonai,” a stand-in term for the unsayable name that the Hebrews gave to the divine.  Often in church I read from the Oxford Inclusive Version, which controversially replaced the pronouns on the page in the 1990s.  In short, I was given to translations that were modern, scholarly, and relatively inoffensive.  But then something happened.

During a short course at Oxford in 2004, I took up the Revised English Version after an old vicar claimed it was the only Bible worth reading.  He smiled as he said it, lifting his glass of sherry on the lawn at Wadham College.  “Real English, you know. Not American.”  This English major took the jibe in fun and found a copy of the REV, which, as it turned out, read like a fairy tale with beautiful turns of phrases, jots and tittles for the Anglophile on nearly every page.  I took the book home and read it often next the NRSV, which sounded dully practical in comparison.  I have often felt glad that the old Englishman made his joke because I have profited from it ever since, but last year I found myself indebted to someone else as well.

While reading Cormac McCarthy’s dark and disturbing novel Blood Meridian for our men’s retreat, I was repeatedly reminded of the King James Bible.  McCarthy’s sentences were oddly opaque and understandable all at once; their strange construction, invented words, and eery images evoked the old 17th Century Bible not often read these days.  After reading the book, along with an essay by Wendell Berry encouraging a return to the King James Bible lest we forget that the stories we read on Sunday are archaic and strange, I reached to the top of my shelf for my KJB.  My copy of the KJB is not a devotional version with pious commentary; rather, my copy is the literary equivalent Oxford World’s Classics edition.  I dug into the book, finding there something quite different than the freshened texts to which I had grown accustomed.

The old language of the KJB helped me to approach it once again as literature.  I felt as if I was reading Shakespeare or Milton, tumbling through the lines in search of great characters, scenes, and speeches.  Moving away from the modern translations (which I believe are more theologically correct), I sat with the words read by my forebears (which are oftentimes more poetic).  Instead of sanding down the rough edges, the KJB draws them out and brings to life the dark and wild drama of a capricious God, who stands clearly as a character not a concept.  In his new book, The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, literary critic Harold Bloom writes of a similar experience:

A literary appreciation of the KJB must risk blasphemy because truly what is most powerful in the unread Scriptures is blasphemous at its core:  the god who is an astonishing, outrageous personality upon whom theologies have been imposed.  All too often, he is bad news: his passions are violent, excessive, ill-tempered, unfathomable, and horribly dangerous.  If in some of his aspects he evokes awe, in others he engenders fright.  (Bloom, 4.)

It’s true.  The God of the Bible, perhaps especially the KJB, is a difficult character.  Yet reading “him” as a character is the beginning of approaching the Bible figuratively rather than literally.  And that is the point of this wonky literature-meets-religion post.  Sometimes the very oldest texts, the ones that write in ways we never would or could, jar us into the recognition of the fundamental strangeness and wonder of the stories.  Reading the Bible as literature might return it to a new relevance, especially among liberals.  How many of us go to book clubs and excel at discussing plot, character, and narrative arc between glasses of wine yet would feign attend a Bible study?    Bloom also notes the joy of reading the Bible as we would any great work, critiquing its presumptions and prejudices while celebrating its timeless and inspiring qualities:

Reading the Bible as a monument of literary culture akin to Shakespeare frees the text not only of the lacquer of dogma but also of much social history that has crippled apprehensions of its permanent value to those who have been and are still denied justice and equity.  If it has been usurped endlessly by oppressors, nevertheless it was and is an ultimate resource for heroic endurance and resistance by the insulted and the injured.  The Hebrew prophets from Amos and Micah on through James the brother of Jesus constitute an authoritative proclamation of the pragmatic works of goodness required of societies and individuals.  (Bloom, 9.)

It leads me to this week’s questions.  How do you approach the Bible these days?  If you read it, do you read it as religion or literature (or both)?  Have you had your own experiences (a joking professor, an unexpected novel) that opened it to you in new ways?

J