I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Wholly Different

Well, things are pretty calm here at church right now. Everyone has other things on their minds with Thanksgiving less than 24 hours away. The family and I will be visiting relatives and, no doubt, eating fowl. I actually tend to stock up on cranberries. I love ‘em.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. No doubt this has to do, in part, with the absence of anything specific to do at church! It is a chance to re-group to re-focus and to prepare for life through Advent and into the winter. My favorite event this Thursday will once again be the football game on TV (Go Lions!). All I have to do is sit and yell at the screen. Ah, happiness….

The month of December is an interesting one for a church like Eliot. It is when we really come into our own as a community church, rather than as a representative congregation of a larger movement. Like many churches, we look inward this time of year. Fall was busy for us. The steeple project continues. We had a few surprises and we hired a new Church/RE Administrator. All of this has meant adjustment and now we are just a little tired. Advent is a time to help us refuel. However, unlike many churches, we continue to straddle the line between two different ways of looking at Jesus and, therefore, at the holiday season.

Many Unitarian Universalist churches do not celebrate Christmas, preferring to lift up more general themes of the season and to hold, on the evening of Dec. 24 “Holiday Services.” The Christmas pageant too has become a “holiday pageant” honoring other faiths often in addition to—sometimes to the exclusion of—Christmas. More often one can gat a sense that the minister and the lay leaders are apologizing for having to bring up the whole Jesus and (gasp!) Christ thing. Also popular are the discourses concerning the pagan precursors to Christmas. Yes, there are pagan roots and they are good for us!

I am not, actually complaining it takes many different perspectives to even begin to come close to understanding the world we live in and the transcendence that surrounds us. At Eliot Church we try to be true to who we are. We celebrate the birth of Jesus, plain and simple. However, the Jesus we know and understand is sometimes very different from what our fellow UCCers see. Again, this is OK.

What this does mean, however, is that we are in the position of making meaning for ourselves. The UUA pulls us toward a leveling of all the faiths. This we cannot accept and remain who we are as a faith community. The normative language and culture in the UCC points toward a different understanding of the nature of Jesus, God, and the Easter story than the one that most of our congregation has come to accept. We exist in the middle as mostly—but not all—Liberal Christians with a unitarian Christology. Our church story is changed because of that. We are neither UUs nor UCCers now; we are members of the Eliot Church.

One thing we are forced to do this time of year is to really think about who we are and what we believe. We at Eliot should and will be asking ourselves whether our observance of the holiday properly reflects our understanding of it. We will again consider whether or not what we do speaks to the spirit within us. These questions do not need to be answered in a final once-and-for-all way. Each year is a challenge and a test of faith. Each year we are different people traveling together and needing different things. Through our creative and inspired quest we come to understand ourselves and each other. This is the Christmas Gift of the Eliot Church.

Happy Thanksgiving and Joyous Anticipation of things to come!

Monday, November 22, 2004

God and the Democratic Party

Every two years or so, in late November, it seems that the Democratic Party finds religion. The religion they find isn’t usually the one I recognize. The faith they are drawn to--once again--is conservative (both theologically and politically) and almost always a part of the Christian-seeming national faith. That is, they once again try to pander to liberals of faith by pretending to be conservatives.

This drives me crazy! One reason is that they are being blatantly cynical. They are like a football team trying to copy the winner. "This worked for the Patriots, right?" Another reason is that they seem to think I am stupid or foolish enough to believe that this bow to faith is in any way a move to articulate a faithful vision of a progressive world. It is a bid for votes, plain and simple and, of course, I vote for those increasingly conservative Democrats because I have no real alternative.

If I were to write a letter to the Democratic Party leadership, I would probably have to introduce myself first: “Hello, I am Reverend Adam Tierney-Eliot. I am a Christian and a Democrat. Not only that, I am pro-choice and favor the right of homosexuals to marry. This may confuse you a bit but, you can console yourselves with the fact that, yes, I am from New England and serve a church in Natick, Massachusetts.”

Before they get too gleeful, however, I would have to point out that there are ministers like me in many other parts of the country, too. They would need to know that people of faith--those who go to church even in “Red” states--are intelligent, thoughtful folks, for the most part and would be more open the message of the party if they felt they were taken seriously. Many Christians and Jews, and certainly many Muslims oppose the war in Iraq. Many agree with liberal social policies in housing, education, taxation, and race-relations. We belong to unions, too. However, in our journey through this world, God to us is not a passenger to be picked up to keep us company from time to time (maybe to play “I spy" during long road trips?). For us, God drives the car. I would like to see the Democrats respect that.

I would also suggest to them that, maybe, they might want to join us. The great battle for the hearts and minds of the American people isn’t really where they think it is. It is happening in our houses of worship and we liberals of faith could use some support. Instead we have been abandoned by our secular leaders who, more often than not, hurt us by helping to define religion as narrow-minded and conservative so that they don't have to feel bad about not going to Church, Synagogue, Mosque, or Temple. To belong to a faith community, after all, requires a little humility. Humility is in short supply everywhere, it seems.

I would tell them this: “If you want my vote, then pray. If you want my support, then get yourself to a house of worship. If you do not like its theology, then change it or change congregations. Try, for once, not being in charge. Try examining your spiritual life. Be willing to share and be challenged (reading Robert Fulghum and John Kabat-Zinn is nice but in isolation it makes you neither religious nor spiritual). If you come to my church or to a place like it, you will find that I am a political liberal not in spite of my religion, but instead because my God requires that I be.”

I am tired of being asked to show that my faith is relevant to the progressive and liberal cause. It is obviously relevant. If the Democratic Party and other secular liberals do not genuinely listen to us, if they do not join our struggle, then it is the party that will become irrelevant and the liberal religious that will suffer for its irrelevancy. The Democratic Party has won many battles but cannot win the war if they quit the field that matters most.

That is all from here for now. Advent is approaching and so is Thanksgiving. I have to get back to church!

Yours in Faith, Hope and Love,

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Dad's AG Blog

Hey Folks!

My own father has entered the world of Blogging with "Tierney's WeblAG." You should check it out (it is in my "links" section as "Dad's AG Blog"). It has nothing to do with religion but quite a lot to do with speaking truth to power in the form of State Attorneys General (yes, they really put the "s" on the "attorney").

With the current administration much of what is holding major corporations accountable to the people is the work done by individual states and their AGs (both D's and R's I might add). It is an interesting and developing area for action. Dad (Former Attorney General of Maine Jim Tierney) has been doing this kind of work for a long time and it remains a crucial factor in the body politic. Enough! I am out of my depth. Good luck to Dad on his noble endeavor...

Friday, November 19, 2004

Rabbi Jesus

It is remarkable the number of times people ask me about who Jesus "really" is. I am often asked and then immediately presented with a theory derived from the personal religous experience of my inquisitor. This is fine. After all, if we do not discuss these things, then we will never truly stretch our own beliefs. However, something else often happens that is less than helpful.

As liberal Christians, we are often easy prey for a good hoax. I once read a book describing "Jesus Hoaxes" from the late 18oo's and early 1900's. These often included the discovery of previously unknown books of the Bible, supposed records of secret religious societies from the middle ages, letters written from Sts. Peter or Paul "clarifying" a previously misunderstood doctrine and other sorts of "early church" documents and relics. As you probably gathered, these were all forgeries. Sometimes they were even originally presented as fictition but then took on a life of their own.

Now, of course, it isn't just liberals who succumb to these sorts of things, but since entering seminary I have heard almost all of these hoaxes preached as the "gospel truth" from the pulpits of UU churches. In each case, the preacher was a reasonable, thoughtful human being who had gotten a bit confused. I should say, in the interest of full disclosure, that I was taken in by the "St. James Ossuary" (the reputed bone-box of Jesus' brother) a few years ago and in no way believe myself to be immune to getting fooled.

I have not read the Da Vinci Code, I really should because folks ask me about it from time to time, along with these older creative theories about God, Mary, the Apostles, and of course, Jesus. I am not qualified to comment on the book except to say that its popularity seems to get at the same need we all feel from time to time. The fact is, we would like to have more information than we do. We would like to know more about Jesus. Not only would we like to know more, but we would like the story to be told with as much drama and action as possible (Mel Gibson, for example?).

We are, in this rationalized world, rather out of touch when it comes to mystery. Contemporary scholarship doesn't help us to maintain that sense of wonder at the stories of the Bible.
Interpretation has changed the way we think of our faith and of God. We have been forced to reinterpret our traditional beliefs and add new dimensions to our understanding. However, we have also had to discard some old, comfortable, awe-inspiring assumptions about what, or who God is. It is natural for us to seek out excitement, not just through bungee-jumping, mountain biking, and highway-driving, but in our faith lives as well.

These stories--the tales of secret societies and archeological discovery-- help to add drama to our religious lives and, therefore, are hard to refuse out of hand. The St. James Ossuary was found in a spare bathroom in an apartment in Israel. Many other hoaxes are "found" in ancient caves or in the back of old libraries. It is exciting! It is significant! We are there to witness (we hope) the great moment. Yet, more often than not our hope isn't quite as grounded as it could be in reality.

However, we can, through the use of our minds and immagination, figure out quite a bit about Jesus and what his life must have been like. One book I recommend to people looking for more information is "Rabbi Jesus" by Bruce Chilton, an Episcopal Priest and Proffessor at Bard College. In it he uses contemporary Biblical scholarship to recostruct Jesus' life. In it he makes many arguments, some of them, no doubt off the mark. However, his basic principle seems to be sound. He lifts up Jesus' Jewishness as the definitive element of what made him who he became.

Now, am I saying that Chilton and others who attempt similar books are 100% correct (Chilton Now has a book about Paul)? Of course not, neither do they, and that is the important part. All I am saying is that for those of us who are looking for a little more wonder in our faith and who might be tempted to succumb to a well laid hoax, it is a good idea to try to stick to those writers who understand their own fallability. The mystery of Jesus Christ doesn't need much embellishing.