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, August 23, 2006

Thoughts on Evil

I haven't been blogging much lately. As pretentious as it sounds, I have been thinking about evil. It is one of those subjects that, for most of us, lurks in the corners of our minds and prefers to stay there. We do not like to examine it too closely.

We like to talk about evil, of course. We know about “evildoers”, many of them inhabitants of the “Axis of Evil”. Still, when we ask ourselves what evil is, our collection of examples doesn’t seem to add up to much understanding. Our sense of evil, it seems, is pretty much subjective. “I (or we) am (or are) good, therefore, those that get in my way, who disagree with me or hurt me are evil”. So the “Great Satan” fights with the Axis and individually each of us has our favorite list of least favorite people.

Of course, there is plenty of evil to go around. We know evil deeds when we see them. The Bible is pretty clear on the subject, actually. Killing, adultery, theft, and idolatry are all bad, for example. They are even more so when they intersect. Jesus deepens this list and makes some “lifestyle suggestions” to help us lead a good life:

Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who treat you spitefully. When a man hits you on the cheek, offer him the other cheek, too; when a man takes your coat, let him have your shirt as well. Give to everyone who asks you; when a man takes what is your, do not demand it back. Treat others as you would like them to treat you. (Luke 6:28-31)

Jesus gives us some interesting marching orders here and elsewhere. Orders, I must confess, that I have trouble following much of the time. This leads to one way to look at evil. Evil isn’t so much a concrete thing but an absence. It is an absence of what Jesus and others tell us is the way of goodness. It is a hole. It is a rip or tear. We make these holes when we act. We make them when we kill, rape, and steal or when we cheat or lie. We are constantly making holes. Human beings may not be inherently evil, but we are not perfect, either.

Addressing this tendency in ourselves is a big part of what religion should be about. Instead, it seems increasingly that religion is used for exactly the opposite. It is used as a hook or a wedge. It is used to promote self-entitlement, to ease the way toward personal goals and successes at the expense of other individuals and—globally—to other nations. Are you worried about this? I am.

This Sunday many Christian Churches will be reading Ephesians 6:10-20, which reads in part: Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Let us all heed the advice of Paul and put on the whole armor of God. Let remember that our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness. That is, the war against evil isn’t going to be won in any actual war or military conflict, but through the use of the weapons of love. Wars represent a failure to use these peaceful weapons, our swords of the spirit effectively. This armor is not a badge or righteousness but a tool for introspection and understanding. Religion is at its best an instrument of peace for both the individual and the community so we must try, try again and first look toward our own hearts and our own souls.

Paul tells us: Examine yourselves: are you living the life of faith? Put yourselves to the test. (2 Corinthians 13:5). Maybe we should do just that. Maybe, as we all return to our “regular” lives this September we should test ourselves and look for ways to live good lives of peace.

Friday, August 11, 2006

St. Mirren

Alas, there appears to be no saint of football. There is, however, a patron saint of football or what we like to call "soccer". A quick search via Google provided a great many sources of information about the St. Mirren Football Club (linked in the title above) but little about the actual religious person of yore. Interestingly the club first played Cricket and didn't turn to its current occupation until 1877. Groovy.

Still, any port in a storm! as a person fo faith I need someone to provide divine companionship. Tonight is the first pre-season game of those wacky and wild New England Patriots (they will be playing the Falcons of Atlanta...which is in Georgia). Therefore it is football time again. This means church is about to begin. Life is good, no?

Some scoff at watching sports. Even more mock the intentional viewing of games that "don't matter". Too bad. These games have all the intriguing characters who you will never see. They star the "little people" (elves) who make all the big people famous. Our starting recievers: Troy Brown (formerly famous) and Reche Caldwell (never, ever). Intrigued? Too bad for you. You are missing an excellent opportunity.

Anyway, it is off to the couch! Go Pats!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Seminary Thoughts

The recent flurry of posts about the now defunct merger between Starr King and Meadville/Lombard has been knocking around my head quite a bit lately. What I have been thinking about, in particular, is the model that we use for our schools. I am wondering if the M.Div. is really, truly the best way to go about preparing ministers.

I got my M.Div. (as I mentioned before) from M/L. What I recieved, for the most part, was a first class education in theology, church history and Bible studies. When I was there M/L students took over half their courses at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Some of our other seminary courses were cross-listed at UCDS (those taught by John Godbey and Ron Engel in particular) and others were taken at nearby seminarys, so we were very much a part of what was going on in the world of religious studies in Hyde Park. I was excited by the intellectual life of that community and was pleased to be a part of it.

My professional courses were OK too, but I didn't learn to be a minister in a classroom in Chicago. In fact, after two years I left and moved back to Maine to work for money while my wife worked toward her Master's in Social Work. I held positions in the social services and, later as a community organizer in the northern and western parts of the Pine Tree State. That is where I learned to listen, to plan programs, and to work with a budget. I learned to preach because I needed the money supply gigs provided. I preached a lot in many small, rural churches (two of which I later served as their settled minister). It was learning through practicing and it seemed to work.

Also, I took courses at Bangor Theological Seminary. I loved them. In many ways, I feel more of a connection there than to my experiences at M/L. They taught me about faith--mine and theirs. They challenged me to consider my vocation and call in a way that I had not experienced before. Enforcer points out that BTS has fallen on hard times. It is worthwhile to note that in this current economic and religious climate it is very easy for liberal religious institutions to do everything right and still struggle mightily.

Finally, I learned during those years from a small group of senior ministers who encouraged me and provided me with insight and inspiration. Key among them were the Revs. Johanna Nichols, Severn Towle, and Alec Craig. Later, during my internship, I had the pleasure of learning from John Corrado in Grosse Pointe Michigan. These four probably had more to do with the sort of minister I am today than all of my courses combined!

I guess what I am saying is that perhaps it would make more sense to separate the academic work from the practice a bit more than we do. Both are extremely important but are better taught in different ways. Perhaps we should encourage our prospective colleagues to receive two-year MA's from Divinity Schools and then take much longer internships (or, rather, paid apprenticeships) with senior colleagues. In this way the congregations could learn along with the students and the seminarys could provide the sort of formation-work that they are supposed to be best at.

How would we pay for it? I don't know. It would take a re-imagining of theological education, maybe there are some savings there. My sense, though, from what I have read is that many students are not happy with how things are now. I probably could have been happier, too. If we reallya re serious about finding new ways to move our ministry into the future, maybe it requires more than hiring a few professors or tweaking the reading list. Maybe we need a whole new way of thinking.

Monday, August 07, 2006

J. S. Henslow's Boring Life

Nothing beats a ride on the Swan Boats, don't ya think? If you look carefully, you can see me, my lovely sister-in-law, Hanne and four of our collective children....

I finally finished the biography of JS Henslow and have a few observations:

First, yes, JS Henslow led a boring life. At least it was boring in the biographical sense. He spent many years as a Cambridge professor and (snore) a rather involved-for-the-time parish Rector (Hitcham) in the Church of England. Henslow was interested in many things. He was a scientist and an educational reformer. However, while he wasn't bored, there is no great trip to the Americas (he turned down the post on the Beagle and recommended his protege Charles Darwin). There were, in fact, few specific moments that indicate his substantial contributions. Both academia and the ministry can be that way. Science certainly is. There are baby steps. There are letters and ideas first read by a few and then by more as facts are found to support (or refute) theory.

In fact, trips to parks and around the local countryside composed the bulk of his field research. He was an expert on where he lived. This is nice to think of while cruising about the "Common" and the "Garden" on a hot summer day. It certainly is encouragement to continue getting the ol' canoe out on the river! Also, I should dig up the plant press...

Darwin once put Henslow's life this way: With respect to a biography of Henslow, I cannot help feeling rather doubtful, on the principle that a biography could not do him justice...I cannot help fearing his life might turn out flat. There can hardly be marked incidents to describe.

He said this in a letter to Joseph Hooker encouraging him to seek out "vivid materials to describe his life as a parish-priest" This is, actually, the most interesting aspect of the book I read (Darwin's Mentor, by S.M. Walters and E.A. Stow). I have always been curious about what it was like for these gentleman (clergyman)-scholars and what life was like for them at work in the parish and when relating to their colleagues in the church.

Life in the parish seems, in fact, to be quite similar. I am not sure, however, that we would have quite as many folks at Eliot sign up for day-long field trips! This was an important part of his program to educate the congregation about natural history and the humanities. It also appears to be one of the more popular parts of his program. One difference is that Henslow also had to serve in a judicial capacity from time to time. Needless to say this created a strain in relations with a portion fo his flock!

Again, his relations with his religious colleagues sounded familiar. Every denomination or religious institution--even the liberal ones--has its share of traditionalists and establishment enforcers. There are always people who are opposed to those who may posess a perspective that differs from the norm. Henslow's interests, both political and religious (he was a Whig and an acknowledged liberal Christian) disturbed quite a few people. This is something that didn't seem to bother him. In fact it may have provided some excitement in his life!

Henslow was well-liked amongst scientists, however. Some of them named things after him. Notably there is a sea-cucumber and a crab. In the New World he is memorialized through the now rare Henslow's Sparrow.

I will leave you with a story from JS Henslow's son, George. He was a Botanist and priest like his father. "A clergyman once said to me at a clerical meeting: 'Hitcham never knew what Christianity was till your father died.' I thought silence was the best reply; but it seemed to me that the speaker was somewhat wanting in Christian spirit himself".

Sunday, August 06, 2006

I'm Back

Today was my first Sunday back in the pulpit after four weeks off in July. Attendance was light (as it always is this time of year, what with kids vacations and the rather amazing heat). Still, we had a good time. My mother-in-law was there (she was visiting from Maryland) and we had another visitor as well. I will post my sermon later, just in case anyone wants to look at it...

I do not take August off. Primarily this is because of the various programs that need to get geared up again in September. Sunday School, in particular, takes some time. This year we are planning some adult RE (Bible Study and World Religions). Partly, I just miss everybody. Two months is a looong time to be away! Besides, these summer sevices give me a chance to get up and shake the rust off. It is amazing how rusty one can get in a month.

I do have a confession to make, however. I hope it is OK with Peacebang but I wore a seersucker blazer today (yes, it was Brooks Brothers [click on "1930"]). It was too darn hot for anything else. This made me recall a post from Boy in the Bands about something called a "Preaching Suit". I wonder if these can still be ordered and if I could convince the congregation that I should use one regularly. I assume that one would need to wear a carnation or something similar to generate the full effect...

Finally, yesterday was the NFL Football Hall of Fame induction. Among the inductees was the Rev. Reggie White. Here is a sermon inspired by Mr. White that I wrote shortly after he died. Sure, I don't talk about him a lot but still...

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Tragic Death of Taft...

...Seminary, that is!

Yes, it is true. The proposed merger between Star King School for the Ministry and Meadville/Lombard Theological School has fallen through, sending a very minor ripple through the educational and religious worlds. If you would like the brutal analysis, please check out UU Enforcer. Enforcer must have better A/C than I do (and more coffee?), however, so I just have some quick thoughts.

I am not really all that disappointed that the talks have ended. I had nothing against the plan and, was pleased to see that there was some energy around actually doing something to stop the slide of two of our most important institutions. Our seminaries, as I have written before, do much to assist us in identity formation as a movement just by existing and serving as forums for discussion. I guess the energy still exists, judging from Lee Barker's comments. This is a good thing.

I am wondering, though, with Andover Newton here in Mass. considering the possiblility of adding the UUA to its list of affiliations (currently ABC and UCC), maybe the best thing for our seminaries would be to start to branch out as well. At the very least, it appears that M/L should spend some of this new found energy working on its relationship with the U of Chicago Divinity School and the other seminaries in Hyde Park (Chicago not New York). They are a lot closer, after all, and these traditional ties have been one of the major reasons people have attended the seminary in the past (myself included).

Also, maybe our seminaries should try not to get quite so caught up in the UU branding campaigns that seem so popular these days. UUs seem to be becoming more exclusive in their world view when, in the past, the movement was one that tried to bring different theological groups together. When I have posted on this subject in the past, people have expressed concern about diluting our "distinct culture". First of all, our culture isn't all that distinct. Second, the presence of many competent (and inspiring) graduates of other schools in the ranks of the ministry shows that this diversity of perspective is, in fact, a key element in our faith.

So, as we say goodbye to the Taft seminary that never was (and, yes, probably would have been named "Chalice School for Religion" instead) let us start looking outside our comfortable walls for support and growth. Let us strive to develop institutions that support the broad tradition of the Liberal Church, rather than the rather narrow strip of it that identifies as UU. If there are UUs that want to go the ANTS (and there are) it is possible that there are Baptists who would feel quite at home at M/L.

Basically, this all comes down, as it often does, to how you see Unitarian Universalism. Is it a religion? As I have said before, I think not. If it IS a religion, one large seminary with a narrow focus on training its clergy makes all the sense in the world. The religion of UUism would be a small sect lacking in influence and interest. Of course, such a thing needs exclusive seminaries to indoctrinate its priesthood into the rituals and teachings that keeps the group together. Of course, we aren't-really-this. We just forget, sometimes, as we worry about our "elevator speeches".

I believe the UUA is (or can be) part of something much bigger. If we keep our eyes on that greater goal, we will find that we are already not alone. We will find, in fact, that our relevance to the world's religious and social debates will increase with the exchange of ideas. That's not such a bad thing. To paraphrase the Rev. Mark Worth, it is time for us to leave the kid's table. To do this we need to be capable of adult conversation. Our seminaries, with a theologically diverse student body and faculty could be a leading part, less of a sect or denomination, but of a movement.

Yours in Faith,
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot M/L '00