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!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

I Read About A. R. Wallace and It Was OK

So I finished the first of my required summer reading books. By way of accountability, I wrote up a short reflection on a very long book: The Heretic in Darwin's Court: The life of Alfred Russel Wallace by Ross Slotten...

If Alfred Russel Wallace is Famous for anything today, it is because of his role in the publication of the Origin of Species. The story, as it is popularly known and, for that matter, as it actually happened, has Poor Alfred sick in the Malay Archipelago and writing to his prospective mentor Charles Darwin with a new theory that he had developed while out in the field. Charles, frightened out of his wits rushed to complete his book so as to maintain the claim of priority on what became the theory of Natural Selection.

I first read this book to see what became of Wallace and Darwin’s relationship. Wallace, as it turns out, was more than happy to play second fiddle and they maintained a sometimes close and sometimes strained professional relationship for the rest of Darwin’s life. However, there is much more to this book (and Wallace) than that one magic scientific moment.

First, I should note that the book is well-written but really long. Much of it is spent describing the details of various 19th century scientific debates which I fear that I only managed to follow in the most basic of ways. Here, however, are some items that I found interesting:

1) Wallace, unlike most scientists of his day, came from a working class family. This fact continued to impact his career throughout his life. For example, Wallace was partly well-traveled because of his passion for the natural world and partly because it was his job, first as a surveyor and then as a paid collector of specimens. His own theories were developed, for the most part, in the field, whatever that field may have been...

2) If people know more than the one incident from his life mentioned earlier, they also know that Wallace had a reputation for being somewhat goofy. Wallace was a spiritualist. He was also a proponent of land reform, a socialist, and an opponent of vaccinations. While these positions were somewhat unusual for a scientist, for a member of the middle class they were less so.

3) If you have the time (I don’t) you might want to pick up a copy of his “Tropical Nature” and other Essays (I’m sure there must be a copy somewhere). In the words of Slotten “It anticipates a concern for the environment that would not fully emerge until the twentieth century.” In light of this it is worth noting that he had a brief opportunity to hang out with John Muir in California during his American tour.

He also spent time with William James, whom he liked and with James Russell Lowell whom he disliked. Sadly, he was not impressed with many of James’ friends. “I was not much impressed,” he wrote, “by the Boston celebrities as I ought to have been.” Alas for us!

4) Wallace has also at various times been accused of abandoning his theory of natural selection later in life. This, however, appears to be untrue. What is true, is that, in Slotten’s words he “refused to believe that humanity, with its faculties, aspirations, and powers for good and evil, was a simple by-product of random forces—that human beings were merely animals of no importance to the universe and requiring no great preparation for their advent." That is, his deeply held non-scientific beliefs led him to conclude that (at least in the case of humanity) there was some controlling order to the universe. This, of course, has been the position of many thoughtful people over the years and one that many still hold today.

According to Slotten (and I have no reason to disagree with him), Wallace was a brilliant man who was often difficult to get along with. He was someone who constantly struggled to earn enough money to maintain himself and his family but, thanks to his relationship with many of the great scientists of his era (he lived for a very long time) he existed to some extent in an upper-class world that tolerated, celebrated, and sometime vilified yet did not understand him. He is worth getting to know, I think, not only for his contributions to science, but for what his life tells us about the class system of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

PS, Remember you lazy High Schoolers!!

This is a very long book and your teacher expects you to read it, not copy from the dubious reflections of some random clergyman!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Revival Anyone?

This Shake Shack Webcam has made me think about my family's annual summer pilgrimage to NYC. The Shack has, in the past, been on the itinerary...

It also has made me finally focus on UUCF Revival, held this year in New York on Nov. 2-5. My question is this: who is going? Since it is a weekend, the fam and I are considering a (brief) road trip. It would be nice to know who is going to be around...

When Revival was in Worcester, I had a great time, so did Rev. Dave Miller, a member of my church. I am sure that this year will be a blast, too!

Mmmmm....Chicago Dogs....

The Four-Way Test

A week from yesterday I had the priviledge of giving the Invocation and the Benediction at the annual Installation of New Officers at the Natick Rotary. I bring this up because it is an organization that does a great deal of good work in the community, both locally and internationally.

I also wanted to post one of the principle pillars of Rotary. One member of our club--while recieving the Paul Harris Fellowship award (arguably Rotary's highest honor) for service to the community--referred to it as a "secular Ten Commandments". Usually, we just call it the Four-Way Test...

Adopted by Rotary in 1943, The Four-Way Test has been translated into more than a hundred languages and published in thousands of ways. It asks the following four questions:

"Of the things we think, say or do:
1. Is it the TRUTH?
2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?"

Good questions to ask yourself, I think.

One of the recipients of the Paul Harris this year is a member of the Eliot Church. Congratulations to Harriett Buckingham! This was her second, making her the first member in the 80-year history of Natick Rotary to recieve the award twice.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

God Language

Over at Peacebang there is an interesting conversation about the use of the word "God" in Unitarian Universalist churches. It is interesting, but I must admit that I am feeling a bit distant from the conversation. I have only served churches where talking about God is the norm. My current congregation is Christian. The two previous ones were not but they were rather friendly to theists of all stripes.

I am also feeling a bit distant from the conversation, frankly, because I am one of those folks who is repeatedly invited to leave and join the UCC. I cannot complain about this either as I already accepted half the invitation. That is, I haven't left the UUA, but I do have that Dual-Standing in the UCC and rather like it. I have, to paraphrase the words of friend Scott Wells, one foot on either side of the Cuyahoga!

Another reason is that it is hot out and I am tired of explaining myself. More often than I care to quantify, well meaning UUs ask me how (how!) could my church survive the enormous gulf between denominations. I used to try to explain how the United Church of Christ is a liberal Christian denomination and how they (that is, we) are open to a wide variety of perspectives when it comes to the nature of the Divine. Our (and my) shared affiliatiion isn't a burden but a source of strength that provides both the opportunity for free and responsible exploration of the transcendent and deep roots in one faith tradition.

I do not do that much anymore because this idea seems to not be a part of the UU concept of what a Christian is. After putting out the effort, I am often politely informed that I am wrong and that Christians could never manage in the UUA. Is this because Unitarian Universalism is so complicated that only the enlightened few can fully understand its subtle ways? It is amazing how often people answer this question in the affirmative. Good grief!

The final reason that I am having trouble getting too into the issue is that I still don't see how the UUA represents a specific, identifiable religion! If it was (whether they were allowed to use God language or not), I probably wouldn't belong. Then when I am shown the door, I would be grateful for clear directions out of town. To me, the UUA will always be a collection of independant congregations fully capable of finding their own language of reverence. When did we start working for the UUA instead of the other way around? I like the challenge that different church cultures provide...

So, anyway, I am comfortable talking about God. People at my church are comfortable talking about God, too (even the athiests!). I hope that everyone gets comfortable because that is how so many choose to frame their spiritual journeys. I say good luck (and thank you) to the conversationalists who care enought to discuss this issue. I am particularly grateful to my friend PaceBang for her continued good works on this subject. Who knows? I just might join you when the weather cools off...

Friday, June 23, 2006

Summer Reading

Toady I am starting to write my last sermon before my July vacation. Summer services will continue but without my presence until I return in August. Needless to say, I am looking forward to some time "off" to reflect and prepare for next year. The addition of another child has left us all feeling a bit busier that usual and the absence of (most) church responsibilities should hopefully give the whole family a chance to get a bit more organized.

One thing that I am hoping to do this summer is read. What with all of the events at work and at home, most of my reading has been sermon-specific. A little branching out would be good. I am always concerned when I encounter a colleague who seems unaware of the world's developments and the nuances of our faith. I fear that, without some concentrated study, I could fall behind as well. My fellow bloggers, of course, do not help as they always seem to be right on track when it comes to matters of the heart and mind. Good job guys! I am in awe of your accomplishments.

This year I will be concentrating on the Gospel of Matthew and on develpoment of the theory of evolution. Here are some of the books I intend to read. I have started some and purchased others.

The Gospel of Matthew (Ya know, it is in the Bible)
Matthew by Ben Witherington III
A Heretic in Darwin's Court; The Life of Alfred Russell Wallace by Ross Slotten
Before Darwin: by Keith Thompson
Darwin's Mentor; John Stevens Henslow by S.M. Walters
Christology in American Unitarianism By Prescott Wintersteen

This is actually quite a bit of reading! Ever the optimist, however, I am willing to take suggestions...

The reason for sharing this list is because (as I do every summer) I try to use this blog to keep me accountable. Therefore, expect updates on my progress otherwise, alas, I will have failed...

Monday, June 19, 2006

No GA for Me

I am sitting here in front of my computer with a nice, cold ice-water thinking about my friends and colleagues who are zipping off to St. Louis today. I will miss hanging out with them for at least another year....

I used to go to General Assembly. I remember driving from Maine to Cleveland with our then two children (then 3 and about 3 months). Man, it was hot. We checked out the homes of Martin Van Buren and James Garfield on the way and then did some major socializing with our friends the Beckels whom we haven't seen in person since (alas! I hope they are well). I remember driving Son #1 up to Quebec from Maine (straight through the woods, Like Benedict Arnold). My son developped a love of mussels, cheese curd, and a tendency to throw up in restaurants when he got--in his words--"partied out". That was also the GA where I got to have tea right outside the walls of the city with Scott Wells and Scott Axford. What a pretty place!

Then, of course, came Boston when we slept on the floor of the Peirce/Scott's apartment in Medford. I believe #1 was partied out again, but we got to ride on the T and, check out all the fun things we could do when we moved to Natick two months later! Since then, nothing. Ah well, we have been busy what with Son #3 and my wife going to work full-time. Still, there is no better bonding experience than a week-long event in a fun city. I wish everyone well...

I should also note that, thanks to my dual standing in the UCC, I now miss meetings in two different theological contexts! This year I managed not to make it to the Mass. Conference Annual Meeting even though PeaceBang did!

Father's Day Sermon (Parenthood)

Here is yesterday's sermon. Attendance was light (thanks tothe weather and various Father's Day activities) and I was asked to post this so folks could take a look if they wished...

Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
Eliot Church, Natick

Christopher De Vink wrote
We do not ask questions when our children need us. We just do what we must.
And (in a sense) he is right
(Except, of course, when our children need us to ask questions)

However, we do have expectations
We do have hopes and dreams for them
We try to equip them for a world that is sometimes life-giving
And sometimes hostile
We act, both as nurturer
A loving secure presence
And instructor, a guide,
Pointing out the way of the just and the righteous
And trying to walk in that way ourselves

If your heirs take heed to their way, to walk before me in faithfulness with all their heart and with all their soul, there shall not fail you a successor on the throne of Israel.

In this passage from Kings
That we read this morning
We see that, in some ways, parenthood
Is pretty much the way it has always been
David seems to have only one major goal
On his deathbed
And that is to pass on to his son Solomon
A sense of the importance of their shared tradition
Of what is right and what is wrong

In this way he is a lot like parents today
He even, like many of us
Takes refuge in religion and in scripture
In this case, he is referring to the requirements
Of the Book of Deuteronomy

When we dream of the future
That we would like for our children
Many of us first think, not of specific careers
Or achievements, but that they be happy and they be good
That is, that they are content with the lot they have received
And that they contribute positively
To human progress

But teaching ethics is hard to do
There are, after all, many challenges that greet
All of us when it comes to leading the moral life
And this holds true for our kids
As much as for anyone else

The Reverend Gordon McKeeman over forty years ago
Tried to name the causes of the erosion of morality
First, he attributed it to the breakdown
Even among church people
Of the structure that meant so much to David and Solomon
A loss of the old faith in the face of the lessons of science
This he didn’t see as necessarily bad
As long as it was accompanied by a change in the basis
For moral action

Of course, this isn’t necessarily an original thought
And his other three culprits are all familiar ones, too
The depersonalization of society,
The loss of a sense of guilt and understanding of sin
And the increasing power of the motive toward personal profit

McKeeman listed these causes back in 1963
And there have been many books and sermons
(too many to count)
On these subjects both before and since
But they are truly the challenges that face us
When we try to teach
Try to pass on what we see
As the true and honest path through life

Albert Schweitzer wrote that
Ethics is nothing other than the reverence for life
It is a simple concept
But one that seems so hard to grasp for so many

Of course, life isn’t the way it used to be
And in certain cases we have had to say goodbye
To a simpler, more honest, better age
But, in other ways society has grown and developed
It has improved in some places
As it has declined in others
And we as parents,
Remembering as we do, days gone by
(Even the parents of young children)
Sometimes miss the significance of our changing world

Henry Ward Beecher, said
In his support for the work of Charles Darwin
That There are many points in which the theology of the past did well enough for the past, but does not any more answer the reasonable questions and the moral considerations that are brought to bear upon it in our day.
Where some saw a weakening of the glue
That held together our communities
Beecher saw an opportunity
To use the insights of science and technology
To deepen our understanding of God
And of our right relationship with the world

After all, there is a reason for the adaptability
Of our democratic faith
And it is that tradition, morality and ethics
While they stay the same at their core
Change, too,
To suit the changes of our world and our people
Who could have predicted during Beecher’s time
The impact of the internet, cell phones
And even the relatively low-tech
Interstate highway system?

As parents, we need sometimes not to teach but to learn
To listen to our children and grandchildren
Who are trying to adapt to an environment
That we cannot fully understand
(as much as we would like to)

This makes our job harder, actually
Because we also try to keep them safe
At some point, for each of us
Our children will do something that we do not approve of
And it is left to us to decide the correct action to take
There is a very good chance
That in their explorations they will need a guiding hand
But, from time to time
They must lead us
Or as De Vink writes
[Our children] will do just fine on their own [if we] Just set them free.

This brings us to that other Bible reading this morning
The one from Luke
Now every year [Jesus’] parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.

Here we have an example of
When the new world meets the old
Joseph and Mary were afraid for their son
They knew that he is still young
(Though twelve year olds
Would be expected to be much more mature then)
they were worried, just as we would be
But Jesus was alright
He was in the temple, learning from the teachers
And the prophets
About the new way
Jesus, in fact, is surprised by their concern.
Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?

Mary and Joseph were confused
Jesus was self-assured
So can it be for all of us, sometimes

Parents must walk a path between two extremes
Even David, who sounded so definite
In his death-bed speech to his son
Left him some wiggle room
When he later said
Act, therefore, according to your own wisdom

And so we, too, try to set out the rules
And leave room for interpretation
Walter Bruggemann, a Bible scholar
When reflecting on the tensions
That existed for David and Solomon wrote:
The issue of conditionality and unconditionality is an interesting one…Some children are nurtured in an environment of ready affirmation that is experienced as unconditionality; that nurture can result in either joyous self-acceptance or in an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Some children are raised in the context of endless moral insistence and implied disapproval; that can result in either a robust sense of duty or in a deep notion of failure and inadequacy. And so it is important to maintain the tension between the two accents.

What Bruggemann doesn’t tell us
But from experience, we know
Is that this tension is one that parents live with
For their entire lives
Because, both as parents and as children
We know that kids always need their Moms and Dads
Whether they are two or eighty-two
And that, just like David and Solomon
That relationship weakens very little
With distance or even with death

When our parents are gone
We still keep them in our hearts
And in our actions
The very way we talk and think

So today, on Father’s Day
When our thoughts turn to family
Let us pray that we are able
To walk the paths of righteousness
For the sake of our children
For the sake of our parents


Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Light at the Center

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Last night I attended a meeting which reminded me of why I entered the ministry. In fact, it reminded me of why I even go to church. Where was I? I was in a meeting hall in the Evangelical Christian Church of Brockton, MA. I was there to both learn from and support through my presence the Brockton Interfaith Community (BIC) as they experienced a moment of renewal and rebirth. I was there representing the Eliot Church and Metropolitan Congregations Acting for Hope (MICAH), a similar organization located in the MetroWest region outside Boston.

BIC is a faith-based organization made up of churches and synagogues that has come together to address issues of concern to the people of Brockton and the surrounding area. On the agenda were actions taken in the areas of youth safety and development, community policing, housing and employment. These are issues, incidentally, that exist for all the cities and villages in this great country of ours. The congregations that were there represented a wide array of faith traditions. The people came from many different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. All attended because they recognized that the problems they faced are better solved together than alone.

A few things struck me about the meeting, itself. One was the sense of ownership that the congregations displayed. Each speaker (and there were quite a few) introduced themselves by stating their name and then saying “and I am a BIC leader”. Right on! Yes you are! To hear people identify themselves in this way--as a part of a group that has thrown itself into its community--was, frankly, electrifying. We all have the capacity to lead in some way. It was a joy to see so many step-up. Incidentally, one person did say that her church didn’t have any BIC leaders. The response: “How about you?”

Also, I had the opportunity to have a brief conversation (called a “mini-one on one” in the parlance of such groups) with a man named William, a special education teacher and member of the Lincoln Congregational Church in Brockton. He was concerned about the state of the children in his community. In particular, he was trying to figure out how to keep kids away from gangs. I may never meet him again, but his story touched me and will inform how I think about the subject in the future. This is a concrete transformation. That, after all, was the point of the exercise!

None of this, however, would have made the least sense if it wasn’t for what, to me, was the major thread that ran through the evening. Each speaker, in a different way, pointed out the basic fact that our power comes from two places. It comes from God and it comes from each other.

We can put it another way by saying that what sustains and motivates us to action is the Divine Presence both in our hearts and outside ourselves. This, to me, is the light at the center of all authentic religion. The path to God takes us into our own being and out to the places of joy and sorrow in our communities. That is what brings us to church on Sunday and that is what brings us to a church hall in Brockton on a Wednesday night.

For some of you, listening to a sermon may feel antiquated. Going to a rally may feel quaint. Still, there is no better way for many of us to grow and to deepen our relationship with the Divine. Yes, real religion may happen in the confines of the blogosphere. It may even happen in the comfortable environment of the university. However, when people come together face to face from the depths of their faith, it is much more likely, maybe even mandatory.

It takes a great deal of commitment to stay on this path. It means being challenged and it means challenging ourselves. I wish BIC all the best. They are in my prayers. I pray, too, for MICAH and for the work of my own church. May we continue to find ways to reach out and to act for positive change in our homes and in the world. May we continue to find ways to bring about the Commonwealth of Heaven here on earth. Amen

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Last Sunday was "Children's Sunday". This is the final big day on our church calendar until after Labor Day. It was, as usual, a blast. The theme (selected by the students and teachers) was "Peace". All the kids had some contribution to make. I, however, had little to do!

Actually, I have two specific tasks. The first is to commission the High School (and Jr. H. S.) kids who will be going down to West Virginia as a part of our housing ministry. This is a prgram we share with other Natick churches and we always send a significant delegation.

That having been done, all I had left to do was hand out the Bibles to our graduating 2nd Graders. This year we have enough of them that they will form their own class next year! They, of course, were giddy. My son (Son #1) is one of these kids, so there is very little mystery surrounding the pastor. They have been to the house. I have been to theirs. I'm just a Dad. So I am not sure that they helped themselves in the teacher-recruitment department when--led by my son--they started making goofy comments (My son tried to rub my head!). This culminated with one of them pounding his fist in the air and yelling, "Yankees Rule! Red Sox Stink!" (oh my). Seriously, though, they were cute.

After the annual Sunday School Picnic, Son #2 and I did our penance by heading over to Fenway Park where, sadly, the Sox lost in the second game of a double-header. However, we did manage to eat some baseball food and enjoy the day with one of his little friends and little friend's Dad. A good time was had by all!

This Sunday I am preaching about Parenthood. I do this every year on either Father's Day or Mother's Day. This year I was out of the pulpit for Mom's Day, so here it is, time to figure out what to do. If you have any thoughts, please let me know, really. The introduction of Son #3 has given me ample material, of course, but very little sleep.

Being a parent is a challenge and, of course, a tremendous responsibility. Certainly those of us with school-age kids are preparing for a period of increased contact with the little ones as school finally runs its course. I, for one, am looking forward to this time. What to do, however, always requires a certain amount of thought. I hope that all is going well with all you parents out there. Enjoy the summer. It will be over all too soon.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Second Chances

Who doesn't need a second chance? I have been thinking about this and about it's sister--forgiveness--quite a bit lately. After all, every one of us stumbles and falls from time to time. Every one of us needs to fix whatever it is we have broken or whatever balls we have dropped. I know that lately I have been off my game more than usual. I have made mistakes at work and at home. Sure, there is Son #3, which is enough to make anyone distracted. Still, that is no reason to give up on the ol' quest for perfection!

Of course, there are people whose affairs are in great disarray. They need a second chance, too. I am thinking, by way of example, of Ricky Williams, the Running Back for the Miami Dolphins who failed his final drug test and will be playing for the Canadian Football League this year.

In an article entitled Ricky Williams Dreams of Canada, one of his new teammates, himself a recovering addict, said Ricky deserves a second chance, a third chance. As long as you're breathing, you deserve a chance. He ain't killed nobody yet. He hasn't taken life, so he deserves a chance. What Ricky did, incidentally, was smoke marijuana too many times. There are other felons in sport in general and the NFL in particular who have done much worse, yet they play. They didn't touch, apparently, the untouchable.

Now, you may not be a sports fan. You should still be concerned. You see, its that darned quest for perfection again. What does it mean in our society that we so quickly ostracize people who have problems? I am against the use of illegal drugs. I really am. I hope that Ricky gets his life together up in Toronto. But in this case, there is more to this story. Why is it such a surprise when an individual like Ricky Williams decides that, just maybe, Holistic Medicine is a better career for him than football? Why is it such a scandal, in fact, that he must both be sued to return to the gridiron and grilled by Mike Wallace? Why, again, is violence off the field OK when marijuana use is intolerable?

Don't think this is just the NFL or pro sports, either. They are a business and try their darndest to both reflect and mold the norms of their consumers--us. We have a great deal of trouble when it comes to forgiveness. There are good reasons for this sometimes. We have been hurt, sometimes terribly. At other times, however, the rush to condemn seems to be unwarranted or selective--particularly when we move from the personal to the communal.

There is, after all, a difference between punishment and permanent condemnation (or damnation?). We may not be able to do anything about Ricky, but we can, of course, look at ourselves. When last I checked, anyway, no one was perfect. Besides, as long as you are breathing, you deserve a chance.

Jesus had something to say about this, incidentally. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye. (Matt:6:41-42)

It would help, I think, if we ask ourselves from time to time who or what we are ready to forgive, and what burdens we still need to work on. Will we ever find the goodness in everyone? I don't know. Could most of us could do a little better looking for that goodness? You bet. Yes, we need boundaries. Yes, there are rules. But we are human beings trying our best let us try to live with patience and in love.