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!

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Wet Day

It is a grey and dreary day here in Natick and (though this happens rather rarely) it matches my mood. Alas! It seems that the post-holiday slump is upon us and it is hard to get too excited.

I have been thinking a bit about the Super Bowl lately. I have not so much for the game but because of the location. Many articles have been written about the odd juxtaposition of the wealth of team owners and their corporate friends with the general economic and physical landscape of the great-but-suffering city of Detroit. Many people say that the NFL owners should "do something" for the city. I am at a loss as to what that might be. However, every time someone says "Ford Stadium" I can only think of all those families Ford laid off just weeks ago and how none of them will be at the game.

All I can say is that the tension of images may help some to see the plight of this and other cities at the beginning of the 21st Century. No cheery facade can obscure the situation, no matter how hard folks try. Most people don't need parties as much as they need jobs. Certainly they don't need parties that they aren't really invited to in the first place. Maybe people will have cause to think about how our national economy has helped some a great deal and others not at all. Maybe, if this turns out to be true, there is a silver lining after all.

I used this prayer by May Sarton at Rotary today:
Help us to be the always hopeful
gardeners of the spirit
who know that without darkness
nothing comes to birth
as without light
nothing flowers

Also, this by Robert Browning was a runner-up
I but open my eyes--and perfection, no more and no less
In the kind I imagined, full-fronts me, and God is seen God
In the star, in the stone, in the flesh, in the soul and the clod

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A Silver (NDP so technically Orange) Lining

I know what you're thinking. Your asking yourselves how, really, could the insightful and nuanced American coverage of the end of one of the most powerful Liberal governments in the world could be improved upon? Yes, I am sure that the Canadian election, held not very far from your home, most likely. Has drawn your attention like that of mold to bread or flies to meat. If it hasn't, it should, you know. We should be curious about our neighbors way past silly jokes about how they are stereotypically polite...

Anyway, in case you are part of that portion of the United States who didn't know who the Prime Minister of Canada was (Paul Martin). You need to begin not knowing another world leader (Stephen Harper). After an election marred, I think, by some unfortunate gaffes and stumbles on the part of the Liberal Party, the Conservatives are back in power after a loooong hiatus. In fact, I was an undergraduate studying, of all things, Canadian history at McGill University when Jean Chretien soundly trounced Kim Campbell in one of the most stunning victories in any modern Democracy. That Conservative Party (The Progressive Conservatives) did not survive the beating.

This could be a problem folks. The new government (albeit somewhat weaker than expected) will no doubt try to roll back many of the reforms enacted over the last decade or so. What that will mean, I do not know. However, it is worth watching.

OK, so, the silver lining. The New Democratic Party (NDP) under the leadership of Jack Layton has picked up quite a few seats in Parliament. Why is this important? The answer has to do with the unique dynamics of Canadian politics. The Conservatives have a minority government. This, of course, has to do with the Bloc Quebecois (BQ), who would very much like to take Quebec out of the country. Ah, math...it rules more than science, people!

Anyway, this means that the NDP may be able to slow or blunt some of the Conservative policies. Here is an excerpt from an article in the Toronto Sun:

Layton laid out four fundamental conditions during the campaign that he says are essential for the New Democrats' support in Parliament.
Those "bottom lines" include a demand not to dismantle the country's public, single-payer health care system and the support of Canada's existing environmental commitments.
He also said his party would not allow the country to fall in step with American foreign military policy such as using Canadian troops for more aggressive missions in Afghanistan. The final condition was the defence of civil and equality rights such as same-sex marriage legislation.

Hmmm.... Now do you think you might want to pay attention to Canada?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Great Idea #2


Ok, this is probably not an idea you have thought of recently. However, the lowly plant press has changed the way we see the world. These little botanist’s dream-tools have enabled folks to collect and categorize much of what we think of as the natural world. Without them, we wouldn’t know nearly as much about the earth as we do now. In fact, it is quite possible that we would not have much of a sense of that over-arching theory of life on this planet known as evolution.

Last week I went to NYC to the Natural History Museum to see an exhibit concerning the life and work of Charles Darwin. During his famous journey on the HMS Beagle—commanded by Captain Robert FitzRoy, himself an eminent and complicated scientist—Darwin and his associates collected hoards of plant specimens, pressed, mounted, sketched and described them. All of which helped the scientific community to see the patterns and cycles that led to the theory of Natural Selection that gets people so worked up today.

None of this would have been possible without the little piece of technology known as the plant press. It is quite clever, really, just two flat, heavy things. Growing up, I would press leaves between the pages of a large book, for example. I stopped doing this sort of thing a while ago, but apparently the habit stuck with other members of my family.

My brother Dan gave my son a plant press for Christmas this year and we are looking forward to putting it to use on the local flora. Sure, you might say that we won’t discover anything new here in greater suburbia and, in a sense, you are correct! However, how many different kinds of plants can you describe where you live? Do you think there might be more? What the press provides is the same thing that binoculars and a good bird book, or a telescope does. They help us make our own discoveries. They give us a way to connect to the wonder of creation in a way that we otherwise would be unable to. That is a crucial part of our human experience.

Being fully human requires us to question the world around us. We need to find ways to connect to the many truths that we encounter every day. Without that agile questing mind, we can end up missing such glorious facts as evolution and such giddy delights as squished plants. We can fail to respect our environment and each other.

So I say “press on”…

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Baptism Sermon +

I have been a bad blogger as of late. Things have been very busy around here! The church has been experiencing quite a flurry of activity around issues of outreach and social justice. Also, we are planning for spring when folks return and annual meeting occurs. There is never a dull moment in church! Also, I managed to bang up my wife's car. Everyone is OK, but we are a one car family for a while as we get it repaired...

So anyway, I have been way too busy even to think about Unity for a while. I am feeling somewhat guilty, however, thanks to Peacebang and her posts from Madrid! So I am posting now...

Here is a sermon I gave recently on Baptism:
In The Spirit
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
Eliot Church

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

Baptism is one of the most controversial parts
Of the Christian tradition
And this has been the case from the very beginning

The Bible Scholar and Roman Catholic priest
John Dominic Crossan
Once wrote
Nothing is more certain about Jesus than this: that he was baptized by John in the River Jordan. The reason for our certainty, he continues, is that the Christian tradition shows increasing embarrassment about that baptism.

What does he mean by this?
From the earliest Gospel
(Which would be Mark, the one we heard from today)
To the latest (John)
The description of Jesus’ Baptism
Continued to change as the early church
Tried to make sense of some rather nagging questions:

Why, after all, does one of the most fundamental
Aspects of the church
One of two sacraments that almost everyone can agree on
Why does this sacred and central act of Christianity
Come not from Jesus (from whom this religion stems)
But from the earlier rabbi John?
John the Baptizer, in fact

Was Jesus a follower of John?
Did this movement we all know today
Have its roots in an older movement
Founded by another, different prophet?
At the very least, it shows
That some of the revolutionary teachings of Jesus
Must have evolved from something else

Crossan concludes that
Since the church would hardly have invented a story that caused it such problems, that very embarrassment gives us confidence in the historical reality of [the sacrament]

So, we know that the act existed
Before the beginning of Christianity
But when we talk about baptism today
There is still quite a bit of confusion about what it means
Different traditions have different beliefs
Some reject the sacrament altogether

But some people believe that the act of Baptism
Is a physical or magical washing away of sin
The accumulated sins
Of a life on this earth
For adults
And for children
Of the original sin
That is a part of being born into humanity

This is, not surprisingly, tied to a very old theology
Of sin most connected in our minds
To the Roman Catholic church
But it can be found in some protestant denominations as well
From this same theology comes the doctrine of confession
And atonement

Now, quite a bit that is positive can be said about this world view
For one thing, the Catholics have spent a great deal of time
Articulating an understanding of evil
A classic weakness for overly optimistic mainstream protestants

This understanding of baptism, however
Has, in the case of the Congregationalist and other
“Low church” movements
Given way to another, more symbolic understanding
In Mark we read …just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torm apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven. “You are my son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased”.

While some may read this passage and see
A special relationship between God and Jesus
Our tradition sees a change in the relationship between God
And all of humanity
John himself tells us that while he washed away sins
In the same way that the temple priests of the time removed sin
Through sacrifice
Jesus’ Baptism welcomed the spirit of God

This welcoming, this personal access
That we are all invited to participate in
Changes the way we live in two ways
First, Baptism impacts the individual’s relationship with God
Second, it impacts the individual’s relationship with the church

The first of these in our tradition is the more important
Baptism is a reminder of our constantly changing
Commitment and relationship
With the Universal, the Transcendent
The Handbook for Church Life
Put out by the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches
Describes it this way
The sacrament of Baptism declares the never ceasing love and good will of God for all people. It demonstrates the infinite worth of each individual soul.

So, though it may not be a literal cleansing
It is meant to affect us, to change us
To pull us back and give us
The opportunity to start anew
To support us
When we fail or when we lose our way

We are not changed by the sacraments our tradition tells us
But by what they represent
Our Baptism calls us to live good lives
By rules such as those found in our reading from Leviticus
But isn’t a requirement for the good life

One of the more common elements in the liberal church today
Regardless of what denomination one might feel affiliated with
Is the doctrine of Universalism,
Though one can see the name
Right after the word Unitarian on our literature
I doubt that too many people have given it much thought, lately
Simply put, Universalists do not believe
In the eternal torment of the fires of Hell
Do not believe in a God who could be all loving
And yet so arbitrary and cruel
As to damn souls to eternal suffering

This is a departure from the more traditional theologies
And that, of course, has implications
For what we are talking about today
The famous Universalist theologian
Rev. Hosea Ballou put it this way
If your child fell into the [mud] - would you long to clean him up because you loved him, or would you only love him after he was clean?
The rather obvious answer to this question
Ballou and other Universalists feel
Gets at the basic relationship between us, the children
And God, the parent
Just as we may be frustrated with our children
But still love and care for them
A loving God does not require us
To be cleansed before being welcomed back home

Now, this is, of course, only part of what baptism is about
And when we baptize children
We do not expect them to make any conscious decision
About their personal relationship with God
Or anyone else, for that matter
Because of this, certain traditions and certain individuals
Make the choice to wait until adulthood

But, for the most part, this is not the tradition in the United States
Except amongst the Baptists (hence the name)
Who, in lieu of child baptisms perform a dedication service
As a sort of first step before the child reaches an age
When they can decide what they believe for themselves
This is an option that is also available here
In part because of our belief in a free and unfettered mind
And partly because of that connection to the Universalist Church
Itself a Baptist denomination
(You didn’t know we were also Baptists, did you?)

Child Baptisms and Child Dedications
Emphasize the requirements of the community
The act isn’t so much for the child
But for the congregation
We are witnessing a family’s commitment
To raise an upstanding, moral, and religious person
In the context of our tradition
And we are also committing ourselves to this very same task
(Something to think about
The next time you are asked to teach Sunday School)

However, because of our congregational theology
Baptism is not a requirement for membership
For belonging to this church is through a shared covenant
In our case the Ames covenant
Not (in the words of the Cambridge Platform)
Not Baptism, because it presupposes a church estate…one person is a complete subject of baptism, but one person is incapable of being a church.
Now, are most members of this church baptized?
Probably, but I have no way of knowing
Because we do not ask for information like that
Our only concern is that the individual commits to travel with us
In the love of truth the spirit of Jesus [uniting] for the worship of God (however conceived) and the service of all

Baptism means different things to different people
And, we do not have to agree
As the Universalists declared so long ago We agree to admit all such persons who hold the articles of our faith and maintain good works, into membership, whatever their opinion may be as to the nature, form, or obligation of any ordinances
But I do think that there is a place for this sacrament
And I do believe that it can and has
Worked wonders in the lives of many of us

The root that makes up the word “Baptize”
Means to dip, steep, dye or color

There is something to be said for steeping
For being connected to,
Surrounded by/Soaked in the Divine
And something to be said for that dying or coloring, too
After all, our relationship with God
Should color our lives
It should bring a vibrance that we wouldn’t otherwise have
Teach us to see that color in someone else
And, hopefully, (in recognizing our interconnectedness)
To learn to be sympathetic
To practice patience and forgiveness
Love and Peace

At its root, Baptism is a form of dedication
A dedication to living out
That full and rewarding and good faith-filled life

So let us dedicate our selves, today
To living the lessons taught to us
By all the great prophets
Reaching out instead of lashing out
To open our hearts to the inspiration
That comes from God and nature
Rather than closing ourselves off
To all but own needs and our own percieved uniqueness

Let us all strive to find for ourselves
Some way, public or private
To make peace with the world
And commit to an authentic faith
Whatever that may mean for us

Thursday, January 05, 2006


I have never been good at sports. I have mentioned that before.

However, I have always been a fan in spite of the disturbingly right-wing way in which it is presented to the public. Everything from the almost-mandatory requirement of athletes and owners to support US foreign policy, to stars thanking God for the big touchdown, is drenched in a sort of nationalist wash that can be more than a bit disturbing. I really, really could do without, for example, the tendency of players and coaches to refer to playing their games as "going to battle" as if what they do has any similarity to the heroic actions of our sailors and soldiers. Wars kill. Sports (usually) don't. However, when the game starts I can only rejoice in the wonder that is the human body even though many of my fellow liberals consider me somewhat shallow for doing so.

Yah know, it is too bad that more people don't enjoy a good game. Many, many people of all political stripes and walks of life do. Athletics (yes professional as well as amateur) is, in fact, a part of of the human experience. When played at its highest level it can be a beautiful thing. Every once in a while I will hear someone say "I only watch college football." This strikes me as being rather like only watching beginner ballet. Sure, Randy Moss is difficult. Guess what, so was Picasso. I guess we shouldn't look at his paintings?

I bring this up today primarily because the NFL Playoffs are about to start (with much, much hype). And because I found a great regular column that is worth a look, not just for those of you who, like me, are liberals who still enjoy a good game on the TV or in person, but for anyone who might like a critique of sports from someone who still values it. Not since the sports page of the Daily Worker have I had so much fun...

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Brief Stuff

"Low Sunday" is past us now. We had a small congregation Sunday, which was fine. A short sermon, followed by communion rang in the New Year and all was well at Eliot. Now, of course, we are getting busy again. This is good, too.

However, since we are at a Busy sort of moment. I cannot blog for long. So here are some links.

The PICO National Network is the umbrella orgainization that includes MICAH, which I have blogged about in the past. Click here to encounter the world of faith-based organizing.

Responding to an earlier post, Bill Baar put us on to the continued existence of Berghoff Beer. Here is their web site, where they will help you select a product for any occasion.

Finally, for those who have resolved to read more of the Bible. Click here for the Daily Lectionary. Incidentally, this is one of the best ways to gain a broad familiarity with scripture.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Great Idea #1

Well, this place needs sprucing up so…I am starting what will hopefully be an occasional series. Preachers will be familiar with the sermon series. These often occur when the obvious topics have run their course and yet there clock keeps ticking and Sunday keeps coming. For this series I have chosen the title “Great Ideas” in homage to the many blog conversations going on that reflect on the intellectual life of our liberal religious movement. That having been said, I doubt too many of the ideas I find will be directly religion-oriented. Why is this? One of my concerns for the professional ministry and also for the involved and enthusiastic laity is that we all remember to be interested in other things as well. As liberals our faith and theology isn’t so much a separate category of our lives as a way of explaining the whole thing.

So here is Great Idea #1 (Incidentally, these aren’t MY ideas. I am stealing them): SELF-PUBLISHING.

Yes! Take a bow bloggers! You are a great idea. My previous post about the Berghoff and Marshall Fields reminded me of how precious originality is. It is also a challenge. A quick look at the hit counters of most of weblogs will show a remarkably low readership! Yet we struggle on for the sake of originality. So, I applaud the great idea that is the blogosphere. I applaud all of it: the crazy rants, the bemused ramblings, baby blogs, travel blogs, even wedding blogs. Congratulations to everyone for making noise!

That having been said, there are other ways to get the word out. These are important, too. I am talking about the low-tech here, things like zines, small presses, and self-made books. All of these forms of communication--with their poor(ish) production value and low circulation also put original thoughts and ideas out there. In fact, they are even more accessible than blogs for those without an office computer.

Here is an arena for action. Why doesn’t everyone write something—a meditation manual, for example--and instead of submitting it to Skinner House or some other similar (and, yes, comendable) venue, mail it to everyone they know with the permission to photocopy? Sure, the font, binder, and paper texture wouldn’t be nearly as good but, hey! Then we could avoid titles like “Have you really looked at your hands?” and “Soap On, Soap Off: the Everyday Spirituality of Cleaning Stuff.” OK, I made those up, but just barely. Individuality in the world of printed media (or any world, really) keeps the big folks from getting inane, tedious, repetitive...

The problem is, of course, that self-publishing requires humility. There is no money and no real fame. The impact is, theoretically, greater if you can convince some large multi-national to distribute your work without having to compromise message or quality. Copyright, I believe, is a bit sketchy as well. But hey, I have a question for you. Would you rather be famous or change the world? I vote for change. If only because under every bushel there is something worthy of being let into the light.

Think of Antiques Roadshow. Without ol' Uncle Mort's beer-can rendering of an African Elephant, it would be just some regular PBS thing about old paintings and jewelry. Writing can be (and is!) a folk art, too. Folk art makes life exciting!

Where is thy stapler? Get writing…!