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, February 23, 2005

The Joy of Being Negative

Since Philocrites may still be listening to the dulcet tones of the oboe, I thought that I would just mention how well he preached on Sunday here at Eliot. Reviews were excellent! Chris presented a lovely sermon with beautiful (and sometimes funny!) readings to support it. Thank you, Chris!

I, too am not entirely around this week. I am on "Study Leave" (or, if you prefer "On-Call" time) and will be attending and participating in my mother's ordination this Sunday. So, to give you all something to think about until I get back. I have some thoughts about Negative theology:

Negative theology (I seem to recall a seminary professor using the term "apophatic") is the practice of discovering God by figuring out what God isn't. It appeals, I think, to many of us who, in the light of a world filled with unpleasantness and evil, still try to see the good that we guarantee ourselves is in there somewhere. There is much to be said for cutting away those things, or parts of things that clearly are not helpful to our theological growth.

I have linked to "The Mystical Theology" written by Dionysius the Areopagite. No, it is not an easy read but he (or she, we do not know who "Pseudo-D" truly was) is worth puzzling out. Chapter III, in particular is useful for figuring out the difference between Apophatic and "Cataphatic," or positve theology. Pseudo-D uses both techniques as each tells us something different about the nature of God.

Balance is good when we think about the nature of the Divine. Too often we are confronted by folks who feel that they have all the right answers and could tell us God's phone number if they wanted to. All of us, however, are as capable as anyone else to experience the transcendent and to know its absence. Good luck wrapping your minds around this one!

Saturday, February 19, 2005

What's in a Name?

In a recent email to the Eliot Parish Committee, I referred to the UCC as our "Trinitarian Connection." The email was only partially related to the topic of our denominational ties, but it has gotten me thinking about one of the things that sometimes makes it hard for us to identify exactly what our church community stands for and represents to the larger community...

If we are, as our sign states, "A Community Church in the Christian Tradition," and if we do not place a doctrinal requirement upon our members--that is, if we do not define what a Christian believes--then how do we describe our place in the UCC? As I have mentioned before, in the context of Eliot Church it is perfectly acceptable to be an atheist and consider yourself a Christian. In fact, it is not uncommon. Does the name "United Church of Christ" imply in our context that some of us are "more Christian" than others?

Furthermore, the older term "Congregationalist" is sometimes thrown around to describe our UCC affiliation. However, the UUA is also part of the Congregationalist tradition and when we use the word to describe a specific denominational or associational structure, it is most often used to indicate a third group: the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (NACCC). They are fine folks, but we are not at this time affiliated with them. The word can be found in the names of congregations affiliated with the UUA, UCC, NACCC (linked above), as well as the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (CCCCUSA). That's quite a range in theology!

Anyway, it just shows how tricky words can be. It is hard to be precise, sometimes. At our church we assume that you can be a Christian and not a Trinitarian. Also, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is as much "Congregationalist" as the UCC. Therefore, in a moment of linguistic weakness I am left with "our trinitarian connection."

How strange... I will look for something better.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Buster Update and More!

Above you will find an article from yesterday's NYT about the continued problems over at PBS. Buster is included, along with Bill Moyers as programs the conservatives find objectionable. ...Buster Baxter...Bill Moyers...two names I never expected to be seen together. Incidentally, the current host of NOW is the incomparable David Branccacio, who made economics fun on Public Radio with "Marketplace".

Now for some housekeeping, I have added some permanent links below and would like to introduce them briefly.

The Wittenburg Door: This is one of the nation's oldest and most respected religious satire magazines. It can be hard to make religion funny, but they do. More power to them for that! I talked about the door very early in my blogging career. That entry can be found in the archives for August. It is entitled "Ain't Religion Funny?" I hope to be funny some day, until then, there is the Door.

Ramble On is the weblog of my cousin Nate. He used to be such a little guy! Now he is in Korea teaching english. It is a broadening experience for him and, through his blog, for the rest of us. We're proud of him!

Socinian is the page of one Fausto, a fellow master of the long-form blog entry. He claims we haven't met, but I find his material enlightening...

I have also included links to a couple of cutting-edge PBS programs. It can be so inconvenient, after all,to not have the thoughts of Buster Baxter and David Branccacio at your fingertips. Maybe later I will also link to the powerful revisionist musings of Dr. Jimmy Neutron....

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Lent Sermon Notes I

Its that time of the year again! Here are the notes to last Sunday's sermon. As I have mentioned before, the next two weeks will feature a couple of guest preachers. The first of these is Chris Walton. It should be interesting! If you would like to know more about Chris, you can click on the "Pilocrites" link down in the "links" section.

I am sorry for not putting this in a more "sentence" form. However, I find that almost impossible since I don't always speak in complete sentences on Sunday morning (or any morning, for that matter)! Just imagine that I am talking, then it makes more sense...

OK, one more thing: The readings from Nancy Wood and John Wolf are shortened in the sermon. They were regular readings in the service. Wolf and Scott can be found in Celebrating Easter and Spring (Seaburg and Harris ed.) and Wood can be found in Singing the Living Tradition. Both of these works can be purchased at the UUA Bookstore. The Bible texts not otherwise idetified in the sermon come from the day's readings: Matthew 5:21-26 and Proverbs 24:1-6.

Who Do You Love?
Rev. Adam Tierney

Welcome to the first Sunday of Lent
And happy Valentine’s Day Eve!
Tomorrow we will all try
To shake off the winter doldrums
To warm up our hearts a bit
To celebrate
The great romantic loves of our lives
And, of course, to buy greeting cards
And chocolate and flowers
At least, that is what grown-ups are supposed to do

But all holidays are really for kids
And it is the children that
Get the best part of this holiday, too

Now, I know that most of you
Attended elementary School
So I am equally sure that I am not the only one
With many, many memories
Of buying those cardboard valentines
With Batman and the Hulk on them
Each one saying something like
You’re Super!”

And then dutifully filling them out
With the names of every single classmate
And putting them in carefully prepared
And appropriately decorated lunch bags
During snack-time
Maybe some of you had crafty parents
Who had you make the required 23 Valentines
For each and every student,
Teacher and volunteer in class
Maybe your kids have made a few, themselves
For, as we all know, things have not changed that much

Now I have a confession:
This annual ritual, when I was growing up
Used to drive me crazy
I didn’t like it one bit
Addressing the cards kept me from my normal games
And, of course, I had to give cards to people I didn’t like
But now I have ceased to be the Valentine’s Grinch
And I will tell you why:

In a world with so much conflict
And so many ways to demean and to hurt others
The little cards in the little bags
Are a sign and proof that it doesn’t have to be that way
Tomorrow, at least the kids
Will have to practice forgiveness
And if not forgiveness, the suspension of hostilities
They will have to work hard to love each other

Valentine’s Day reminds us of the injunction
Made by Jesus in Matthew 22:37 and 39
You shall love God with all your heart and with all your soul
And you shall love your neighbor as yourself

Not only is this the religious message
Of the holiday
Which is, after all, the feast day
Of the Christian martyr
And Roman Catholic St. Valentine
But, truly, I would suggest that it is
A valuable and valid theme
For the entire season of Lent

Have any of you given anything up this year?
As you know
It has been a tradition through the years
In various parts of Christendom
To make a sacrifice of some kind
To go without in order to become closer to God
Fasting is a popular way to do this
And I spoke of it in the fall

Yet our tradition, way back to its roots
Has often taken a rather casual stance toward
Times such as this
So many in the free church
Do not observe Lent at all
Or do something smaller
A partial fast like giving up sugar
Or trying out Atkins for a while
Or taking up jogging
And like the New Year’s resolution
What we choose to do during this time
Doesn’t always have a lasting impact

But there is another way to look at Lent
This passage from Matthew is a part of it
After all, we are preparing for Easter
A pretty special and usually fun holiday
Clinton Lee Scott, in our reading today
Called Lent
A time of maple syrup and raised doughnuts
A time not for monastic introspection
But for expansion of mind and heart

What better way to observe the season
Than to Love this great and divine gift
Of an earth that is on the cusp of awakening again
And to find the good in others
And in ourselves?

It may be harder than it sounds
And it does require a sort of fast
For Lent requires a change in attitude
A way to work our way toward abundance

John Wolf puts it this way
Fast from criticism, and feast on praise
Fast from self-pity, and feast on joy
Fast from ill temper, and feast on peace
Fast from fear and feast on faith

But what,
What is Jesus, himself, calling us to do
What does he mean
When he says to love our neighbors
As we love ourselves?

In a novel by David Eddings
One of the main characters is asked
Why he addresses those he doesn’t know as “neighbor”
And he tells his questioner that he says this
Because it is true/Everyone is his neighbor, in a sense
And because not everyone will turn out to be his friend
That is to say, that when we are told to love our neighbor
We are not talking about the same kind of love
That grown-ups, at least, are thinking about on Valentine’s Day

The Buddha says in the Dhammapada
Never does hatred cease by hating in return
Maybe it is the prison of hate
That Jesus spoke of in our reading
The one where we will not get out
Until we have paid the last penny
If this is so, then Lent is a good time to pay up

Either way
The Buddha here articulates
A basic understanding that requires
Us to at least try to see someone else’s pain
To understand their perspective and their roots

To love someone certainly doesn’t mean
That we have to like them
It is much more an issue of respect
Of understanding that each person we meet
Every living thing we encounter
Is a part of the world that we, too are a part of
All are holy, even if we must work to find the holiness

Whether we like it or not, we are connected
And it is this idea that makes it possible for enemies
To make up after a conflict has ended

Jesus in our reading today
Tells us If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, go and be reconciled and Come to terms quickly with your accuser on the way to court
We, too should be able to reach out
To make contact with those we have hurt
Or who have hurt us
Either literally, or when that is not feasible
(and sometimes it really isn’t)
In our souls and in our prayers
To reach out and
Find a way toward our own peace
And reconciliation

Why don’t we all make a commitment
To, over the next month
Make contact with our neighbors
Say "Hello" to the stranger
Or reacquaint ourselves
With at least one friend
That has drifted away?
That is something that
Can have a permanent and positive effect

But loving our neighbor
May just be the easy part
A friend of mine told me a story
About a time when he worked in an inner city mission
He spent all of his time helping folks with food vouchers
Job searches, legal and medical help
In fact, he worked so hard that he hardly noticed
That his family was coming apart
That his health was declining
And that, in spite of all the good he was doing
He wasn’t happy, he didn’t feel like he was making a difference

One day, after leaving a long meeting
An older colleague came up to him and said
You know, you aren’t doing what Jesus told you to do
Now, these are fighting words in the ministry
(Even for many Unitarian Universalists!)
And my friend was taken aback
Until this colleague said
You love your neighbor, but you do not love yourself
These things are of equal importance

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to love ourselves
Sure, we try
(We even buy ourselves chocolate and flowers from time to time)
But that isn’t quite the same thing
Because the love we are talking about
The “self-care” if you will
Must include that same respect
We try to show to others

That is what Rev. Scott seems to be getting at
When he says that Lent
Is a time for becoming more alive
It can help us find the spark of life within ourselves

Again, it takes courage to love ourselves
After all, there are things about all of us
That aren’t that loveable
We have hurt people, we have hurt ourselves
We need to forgive, we hold grudges
And could do better in a million ways large and small
That is OK, we are human beings
But now, as we seek the good in ourselves
During this time of self improvement
Maybe we can find the strength
To do the hard work of healing

So, as we seek out that old acquaintance
Or lean over shake hands with the stranger
Why don’t we also
Commit ourselves to do something
That we have always dreamed of doing
Renew a hobby that we used to love
Register for a course, read a favorite book
Let us try to get in touch with that part of ourselves
That is NOT concerned with work or the kids
Or the errands that take up our waking moments

If we do
I suspect we will find that
That same still, small voice
That makes us get up and go to church
This is a time for contemplation
A time for silence, too
The poet Nancy Wood writes:
My help is in the mountain
Where I take myself to heal
The earthly wounds

Let us all go to the mountain
And to the church to pray and worship, too
So that we have an answer to the question
Who do you Love?

Proverbs tells us that By wisdom a house is built
And by understanding it is established

This is the case with the world at large
And with that internal world we all inhabit
We, seekers after wisdom
Need to find it in the many places and moments
It is offered to us
By loving our neighbors and loving ourselves

And by maintaining a strong
And vital faith
Loving the Divine with all our hearts
And all our souls


Saturday, February 12, 2005


Actually, now that I think about it, The Peloponessian War is a darn good book. It is timely, too. As I mentioned in the previous post, Thucydides, himself, was a particiapnt in may of the events that occurred and is trying, in his own way, to make sense of it. It is one of the first true history books, as well, and reads very well today because of that. In particular, it reminds me a bit of the Memoirs of US Grant.

Of particular interest during this time is the section concerning the Athenian invasion of Sicily. Thucydides describes the debate in Athens in some detail and then, also, the invasion. The debate included such topics as the defense of democracy and the rights of smaller nations to self-dermination. I have linked an online version of the book and a commentary. However, if you don't already have a copy from High School or College, they are available in Paperback form at your local Book-Mart.

Good Reading!

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Ash Wednesday!

Happy Lent!

Yep, it is finally here. As I have mentioned before, I really enjoy Lent as a time of preparation for not just Easter, but spring, itself. It is a good time to give something up or to take something on. When I do this, it isn't in order to practice self-denial so much as to reflect on the year and how things are going for me personally and spiritually. The first of my Lenten rituals, for example, will be to take the bike in for a tune-up. It is all a part of getting in shape and breaking out into the world after a long winter.

Here at the church we have some special things planned. In particular, we will have two special guest preachers on February 20 and 27. The first of these is Christopher Walton. Many of you know him as "Philocrites," the keeper of the weblog of the very same name. The other is Rev. Bob Batchelder, the Director of the Worcester Area Mission Society (WAMS). This is the service arm of the Central Association of the Massachusetts Conference, UCC. I will be around to hear Chris, but on the 27th, my mother will be ordained into the UCC ministry! I will let you know how that goes...

Speaking of Philocrites, Unity is now award winning! It won an award for its sermon series during Advent (yes, I probably will post my Lenten sermons as well...). It was also nominated in one other category (best writing) but lost handily to "Virginia UU in King Georges War." This weblog is maintained my a marine officer who is currently serving in Iraq. He is, of course, in a long line of writer/soldiers documenting the conflicts that they witness and participate in. This tradition goes back at least as far as Thucydides and his Peloponnesian War. That is pretty good company if you ask me!

Anyway, I have linked to his site in the "links" section. Eliot Church, itself is the spiritual home to more than a few past and current Marines. It might be helpful for us to see how the world looks to a religious liberal and soldier.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Blame It on the Stones

I love cartoons.

I came to this realization last night as my sons and I spent some quality bonding time in front of the tube watching old episodes of "The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo." Shaggy and the regular gang were joined by Scrappy, a boy names "film Flam" and Vince Van Ghoul. There is, incidentally, no similarity between Vince and the painter of similar name. However, he is voiced by the legendary Vincent Price and, of course, looks like him, too. This is, in some warped way, a classic. Certainly having had the live action version inflicted upon us, it seems like high art.

As the oldest among five children--the youngest of which is still in High School--I had a long exposure to children's cartoons both the educational ones and the fun ones like Smurfs and Scoob. I continue to enjoy them. There is something inherently subversive about the medium as it appears on TV. These characters live in a fantasy world, they are sponges who sing, dogs who chase ghosts, little blue men and a creature with two front ends; a "CatDog," if you will. Even the evangelical vegetables in "Veggie Tales" can slap your brain into new and exciting directions. We're talkin' about a talking cucumber with super-plunger ears people! These shows all offer an alternative, often funny window on their world and on ours (and I haven't the time to even touch upon South Park and The Simpsons).

Certainly we now know, thanks to Tom Hanks, George Lucas, "Scooby 2" et al, that you can make cartoons look real. Whoopee! I am happy for them but it defeats the point. It is taming a medium where a Moose and a Squirrel can help us laugh at the cold war while teaching us a valuable lesson. Why can't a purple chain smoking giraffe drive the Polar Express? I see no reason, myself. What about you, Mr Hanks?

Anyway, that is not why I am writing about cartoons today. Yes, I am thinking about Buster Baxter. He is one of my sons' favorite characters. Yes, he is a bunny who talks and goes to school, hangs out with an aardvark and visits Vermont-where-they-do-those-civil-unions. Yes, the Department of Education is angry. Yes, according to my morning paper, that episode has been pulled by PBS (although WGBH contiues to sell it to individual stations). I say "Good for you Buster! Stand up for your medium! You make me proud to be an 'animaniac'"! The world needs art that challenges our assumptions. We need an education system that does so, too.

When I was in high school, I went through a brief country music phase (like you didn't!). The only lasting result of that experience is an undying affection for the work of Kris Kristofferson. Sometimes, lately, I have been drawn toward one of his earliest songs:

Mr Marvin middle class is really in a stew/Wondrin' what the younger generation's coming to/And the taste of his martini doesn't please his bitter tongue/Blame it on the Rolling Stones.

I wonder, in these days of Spongebob and Buster, if cartoons are the new "Stones." Maybe it is just television, itself. Maybe this is merely a facet of the same gem that brought us "Murphy Brown vs. Dan Quayle." I don't know. What I do know is that I will keep watching them and their envelope pushing antics. Sometimes they are shocking. Sometimes I disagree. However, even Old Scooby can make us think.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

February 1

During the prayer at the Natick Rotary today, I gave thanks for February 1, the beginning of the end of winter. I am not a winter person. I do not ski. I sled very little. Mostly what I do after Christmas is fight through the snow to work and back and then hide out in the parsonage with my family, dog, books, and basic cable. After last week's storm, in fact, the walk to the church became downright dangerous as walkers were forced out into the street! Thanksfully, the sidewalks are now clear and that is a thing of the past. Or, at least, until the next snowstorm.

There are folks who like the snow and the cold weather and I congratulate them. My sister Kate, for example, has pretty much run the entire range of snow sports and loves them all. (I should say that one of the most fun and exhilarating experiences I ever had was riding on the back of her snowmobile through the woods at our parents' house in Maine. I let her steer and so I continue to live... ) I, however, am not one of those people. Therefore, it was with a certain hopefulness that I woke up this morning and looked out my bedroom window.... Alas! The snow was still piled up around Pleasant Street and the Charles River was (and is) still frozen over. Yet, life goes on, so I got on with my day.

February can be a cruel month for those who struggle during this season. The simple act of going outside can become a chore, particularly for those of us with children. With children also come the many interesting illnesses allowed to grow and mutate in our schools. Usually the kids recover quickly from the minor sniffles. It is Mom and Dad and Gramma and Grampa that take a longer time to bounce back. December and January have been a veritable sea of decongestants and cough medicine for many of us.

So, how do we win against the forces of illness, boredom and repetition? We must, after all, try to keep our spirits up even when things are down (Even for "winter people" things are down sometimes...right?). I deal with it by looking forward to big events, like Unity Sunday (Really!), and by going to church (when we don't have to cancel due to blizzard conditions, that is). Of course, for some, the tendency toward depression this time of year is much more serious. We all need to look out for the folks who really do need our help and help them when we can.

Now we are on the home stretch! We can start to look back on all that and try to remember that we are in February. While we cannot see the changes now, they are on their way. Lent is coming. Lent yields to Easter. Easter welcomes the spring thaw, the green grass, and the flowers.

I think of February as a good time to practice patience. Something good is coming but we have to wait for it. While we wait, the ground can still trip us up. This means the waiting, itself, can sometimes be a challenge. The patience we practice isn't the sort of grim stoicism that permeates the New England landscape. Instead it is the developing of an awareness of what is coming and the understanding that our journey from here to there is a process of wonder and discovery. When we find ourselves pushing through the cold, wet present, we can seek the small signs that point toward a brighter future.

This morning was cold. However, when I left Rotary at 1:30pm and started walking back to my car, I realized that it was too warm for my hat! It was a small sign, but an important one to me. The sun was out, the snow was melting (in places) and I could see the sidewalk peeking through holes in the ice. We still have a long way to go but we can make it. We can make it by practicing patience, by being observant, and by celebrating the good that we find every day.

Even in February there is some warmth. Even in the darkness there is light.

Amen for that!