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, September 21, 2006

Oh Horatio...

As I was getting the kids ready for school this morning, I happened to glace down at the front page of my local paper, The MetroWest Daily News. The headline read Kids' fair named for pedophile:Annual event honors Horatio Alger who molested boys. Yep, Horatio Alger Junior strikes again. The street fair in Marlborough has been named after him for the last 11 years and, when I first heard about it, I did wonder why. The mayor's office called the revelation of his crime "new information" but one of the the organizers of the event, Janet Bruno, didn't seem all that surprised, pointing out that "he was never convicted of that" and that the topic of the name "comes up regularly at committee meetings". At least, that is what the paper says.

Interestingly, Marlborough is currently trying to bar sex offenders from living in town.

Of course, the information isn't new. The events occured in 1866 and are currently available on the UU Historical Society's biography of Alger. The reason many folks are not aware is because of the cover-up at the time. This is also the reason he wasn't convicted of a crime he did not deny. That cover up, no doubt was planned, in part within the confines of my living room. You see, I live in the Horatio Alger Sr. house, the parsonage of the last church he served. It was to this place that Junior fled after his removal from Brewster. It was Senior who wrote the letter "promising that his son would resign from the ministry and never seek another church" (see the UUHS webpage, linked below). This, of course, freed him to write children's books and become a tutor for wealthy families in New York City.

Horatio Alger, of course, wouldn't really have fit in one of his stories. While his parents weren't rich, they were middle class. His father (a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, like his son) had served a variety of Unitarian congregations and appears to have been stunningly average both in his gifts and his ministry. Some have described him as "downwardly mobile". Either way, he had the sort of connections his son needed and he used them...

I am, in some ways, reminded of this incident in the history of our movement every time I walk through my front door (there is a plaque, not to the event, but naming the residence) and when I enter the sanctuary of the church (another plaque). I sometimes find myself wondering what it was like for Senior when he heard the news (probably from his own son). What was his initial reaction? What made him decide to take the course he did? What a horrific situation to find yourself in as a parent. Still, that doesn't excuse the actions that enabled his son to have further access to children. In fairness, it should be noted that there are no other known examples of sexual misbehavior during his long life so maybe dad knew something we do not. Still, what a risk to take. We also have to ask what kind of impact this had on those Brewster children. How did they handle it when what happened to them was swept under the rug?

In a time when we are rightly concerned both with the sexual misconduct of clergy and the response to that misconduct from denominational (or association) leaders, it is very much worth our while to remember this dark moment. Sure, what Junior did was bad and I am sure that the folks in Marlborough will (and should!) figure something out and change the name. Yet we shouldn't forget the role played in this by Horatio Senior and his friends and colleagues. We need to make sure that it never happens again in the UUA or anywhere else.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Christian vs. CHRISTIAN!

For those of you concerned that Fox’s new “religious oriented” division FoxFaith is planning to release sensitive and thoughtful works of art that examine and celebrate the complexity of the diverse faith landscape that we call the United States of America, you can relax. When they say "religious" or "faith-based" they mean one particular branch of one particular religion. It looks like their first movie is a western by Christian writer Janette Oke. For the rest of us there’s still the occasional documentary or newsmagazine on PBS.

Needless to say, this project came out of the enormous success of movies like the Passion of the Christ, which brought out a great many people curious both about the Bible and about how Mel Gibson would work out as a director. This is somewhat dubious if what you are looking for is nuanced social commentary but, no doubt, Fox will be outrageously successful. The special effects for the next Left Behind movie will, I am sure, be jaw-dropping.

One thing that concerns me in this new urge to define a “Christian” market group in a country where most people (churched and unchurched) identify as Christian is the fact that it makes little or no sense religiously. Am I really less of a Christian than Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins? Golly, I hope not. Do I really need to see these movies or buy the books (other than the Good Book, of course) that are geared to the Madison Avenue Christian? Again, they are not my bag. Yet they—like those fish thingys—are becoming part of the “must have” gear for the well-equipped person of faith.

My biggest problem is that this new target group isn’t one I am in and I don’t intend to change my lifestyle so I can fit it. There are few, if any members of my church who would feel comfortable in that “Christian audience” that Fox and others describe. This seems to me and, I suspect, to other Liberal Christians to be another circle drawn to keep us out. I am reminded of those covenant marriages, which somehow make people “more married”. In this case it probably wasn’t intentional so much as an accidental result of a chance to make some cash...

Fox and others have managed to label some Christians as CHRISTIANS, as have some of those CHRISTIANS themselves. The rest—based on their artistic, political, and consumer tendencies—apparently are something else. I guess we need to draw another bigger circle to keep us all part of that movement founded (not sold) by a guy named Jesus so long ago. Keep the faith, people!

Rulers take pleasure in honest lips; they value one who speaks the truth. Proverbs 16:13

Hats for Men!

My friend PeaceBang has two blogs. One, of course, is "PeaceBang" itself. The other is Beauty Tips For Ministers, which will now have its own permanent location in my place of links. Recently she has posted about hats (Pope Benedict's in particular). This has gotten me thinking about something that has (in all truth) occupied some of my idle-thought time over the years. That is the sad state of the "Man-Hat".

I first encountered this problem while on internship at the Unitarian Church of Grosse Pointe (yes, that Grosse Pointe). There I met a person who had rehabilitated his grandfather's bowler and wore it all fall and winter to church and to other places where a baseball cap would be just plain inappropriate. The thing is, he looked good! Up to that point, I had thought of men's hats (not caps here, but hats) as either the purview of people way too cool for the rest of us (musicians, college kids, etc) or candidates for president in their local Dungeons and Dragons club (I never made president, OK?). This man, however, was inspirational. He didn't become a "character". He kept his identity and struck a small blow for quality head gear.

This is more than a shallow fashion issue, I might add. Winters are cold, heads need to be kept warm even at church or in business meetings. We are increasingly aware of the risk of skin cancer yet most men (many of them bald) go unprotected or underdressed to work.

Briefly I tried to interest some of my friends in this issue. I recieved some suggestions but no real solutions. What does a no-longer-very-young professional male (yes clergy, but anyone who sometimes has to where a blazer or suit) put on their head? What will they feel comfortable wearing? My supervisor wore a fedora. He looked good, but they aren't for everyone. I find it strange with all we now know about the sun's rays that the baseball cap is the only acceptable choice for most Americans. Anyway, if anyone has something to contribute to this discussion, let me know, or better yet, drop PeaceBang a line...

I leave you with these thoughts from the Center for Disease Control (FAQs accessed here)

Get a Hat
Q: Will a hat help protect my skin? Are there recommended styles for the best protection?

A: Hats can help shield your skin from the sun's UV rays. Choose a hat that provides shade for all of your head and neck. For the most protection, wear a hat with a brim all the way around that shades your face, ears, and the back of your neck.

If you choose to wear a baseball cap, you should also protect your ears and the back of your neck by wearing clothing that covers those areas, using sunscreen with at least SPF 15, or by staying in the shade.

Q: For the best protection, what material should I look for in a hat?

A: A tightly woven fabric, such as canvas, works best to protect your skin from UV rays. When possible, avoid straw hats with holes that let sunlight through.

Q: Does the color of my hat matter?

A: The amount of shade offered by a particular hat appears to be its most important prevention characteristic. If a darker hat is an option, though, it may offer even more UV protection.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Another Sermon

Once again I feed the content monster with a sermon. In this case, it is the one I gave yesterday.

We had a presentation during the service from the chair of the Outreach Committee (the "Barbara" in the sermon) who outlined a project we are doing in partnership with the Pine Street Inn and our neighbors (and fellow UCCers) at First Congregational Church. It should be a good one. We are working to furnish a variety of apartments...

I seem to be doing a series on the Epistle of James. If you haven't read it in a while, you might want to. James was less concerned with the niceties of doctrine and much more concerned with living faithfully. Social Action is, of course, a big part of that living. Obviously, this Sunday we talked about that. My previous sermon tried to get folks thinking about the other ways in which we live faithful lives...

Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
September 17, 2006

James, the brother of Jesus was a poor man
Leading the dangerous life of a religious dissenter
So when he and the other members of this early Jesus movement
Read or heard (and most of them, being illiterate, they heard)
The 22nd Chapter of Proverbs
Tell them that The rich and the poor have this in common:
God is maker of them all
It was understood by them in a way that only the poor
(Or those who have been poor) can understand it
Because it is (at its essence) revolutionary

What a concept
In a world where wealth and power
Were viewed as gifts from God
When rulers, both secular and religious
Used theology as a weapon to enforce
The social order that placed them on top

To the comfortable this passage can be viewed
As something of an abstract concept
A reminder not to be arrogant and to remember
That what we have received is meant to be shared
So it would have seemed to the priests at the temple
The aristocrats of Rome and elsewhere
Perhaps it hung around their consciousness
Making them feel a little guilty about all that they had

But, in the context of the early Christian movement
And to the Jews living in occupied Jerusalem
(And James thought of himself as a Jew)
To the impoverished, the truly destitute
This idea of equality (coming as it does
From sacred scripture) is an affirmation
Of the fact, so hard at times for some to believe
The fact (to put it in terms we would understand today)
That the CEOs
The Kings and Queens
The celebrities and socialites
Who always seem to have so much and appreciate it so little
These people are no better than the mother on welfare
And the homeless person living in the park
Or in the basement of a friend

James, a leader of the rapidly growing movement
James, saw this tendency,
The tendency of those with more power
And more prestige to work,
(sometimes unconsciously)
To marginalize those who had less
So Chapter 2 of his letter starts out with a story
Whose setting should be familiar to all of us
That is, the beginning of church
If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes…while to the one who is poor you say… “Sit at my feet” have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Remember, James had little money
And Jesus, then Peter and Paul
Were homeless, imprisoned, tortured and killed
Because of their belief in a religion for all
This aspect of the faith
Was what helped it to survive and grow
During those centuries before Constantine
Made it the religion of the state
For hundreds of years
The faith was held in the hearts, not of respectable people
But of the outcast, the oppressed
The ones in need of shelter and community
Of hope and love
It was the religion of the ones in dirty clothes
It was the faith of people who (like James)
Weren’t so much concerned with the various formulations
Of who Jesus was
But in the manifestation of what he taught

Christianity back then belonged to the marginalized
They owned it
And you know what?
They still do today
It may not seem like it when we see
So many in the mainstream draping themselves
With extreme displays of piety
People from politicians to actors to sports heroes

But it is true/All we have to do is remember
That story of the Widow’s Mite
When Jesus, observing the wealthy
Come and lay their gifs before the altar
Saw a poor widow come and contribute her pennies
Truly I tell you [he said] this woman has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all that she had
When we look at this story
Not from the perspective of people
Who have been given much
But from that of Jesus and his friends
You realize that, yes,
She has paid for her place in full

Now, a faith for all should and does hold a place
For the “haves” as well as the “have-nots”
But at the same time, it is important to understand
Who built the house we inhabit
And who else lives here
Before making a home

The rich history of our religion
Demands that we pay the rent on our tradition, if you will
And that means more than putting money in the plate
For the continued health of the congregation
(Although that is very important)
It also requires that we turn the secular world upside down
And give power and respect to those in need
To make it possible for them to also contribute
To society, to lead a rewarding life
Defined by something more than survival

This is one of the reasons—a theological one
A Biblical one
For why we serve,
For why we work with groups
Like the Pine Street Inn or the Heifer project
For why we send volunteers to the Open Door
And to the housing ministry in West Virginia
Our faith speaks in a special way to the margins
And we are privileged when we have the opportunity
To witness and participate in that message

A message that can bring the power
That Will Campbell
Wrote about being present
At the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins
A power [he says] that they had not seen before
Now this ability to organize as people of faith
Is what the MICAH project is all about
An ecumenical dialogue that we
(As a church) are participating in
This is not to say that we are planning any sit-ins
But it is, as in the civil rights struggles that
A fulfillment of the biblical mandate to give power
To the dispossessed

That is the strength of advocacy, of theology from the edge
It gives people the freedom to make choices
Our best Outreach and mission work is that which
Gives others a voice and a platform
It starts with providing necessities
Food, housing, a way to make money
And continues by building
A shared forum and means to be heard

We are fortunate in that by giving these gifts
Enabling this freedom
We also receive
Our participation helps all of us,
For (as W.E. Channing wrote) We are thus, without parting with our own human nature, to clothe ourselves with the Divine

Our giving teaches us to look outside our own difficulties
To see how communities help each other
And to feel the depth of faith possessed
By those who are going through challenges in their lives
We learn when we help each other
Through our InReach activities
And we learn in more formal ways as well

Consider the relationship our Sunday School children have
With the Heifer project
Again, an organization
(In this case a global one)
Providing people with the means
For self-determination
In this case a Cow,
Sheep, goats, rabbits--an addition to an equation
That may lead someone out of poverty

Our kids send money, many of you
(their parents, certainly)
Are aware of this
But did you know that a portion of our Religious Education curriculum
Is based on their materials
And that the kids are planning to go soon on a field trip
To one of Heifer’s local farms?
They have given us an opportunity
To broaden our own world
And that of our children

These two aspects
One: our acting out of our faith
Acting on the call to work for justice and equality
That we find in the teachings of Jesus and of James
And Two: the very real spiritual benefits we experience
From our service work
Combine to make us a stronger, livelier church

Now, I am not going to speak for much longer
As I have the honor of introducing Barbara
To present to you a new program for us
But I would like to say this about what we are doing
In partnership with the Pine Street Inn and First Congregational Church

This is the sort of thing that is perfect for our congregation
And it is perfect because it gives us the chance
To do something lasting right here in our own back yard
It lets us build connections
With two other great local institutions
And it makes it possible, through our teamwork
To do something that separately we probably wouldn’t be able to do
That is, to help people transition from poverty to well-being
To help our fellow human beings
Fellow Children of God
Restore their dignity and rebuild their lives
In so doing
We make our own lives just a little richer
Just a little bit better lived

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Here are a couple of pictures from our "Camp" in Maine. I know that I have explained this in the past, but it never ceases to confuse folks from other parts of the world (South of Portsmouth, NH) what a "Camp" is. It is not a campground, nor is it a "summer home", a term which implies--in Northern New England at least--a relatively large piece of land with an actual house on it (often by the ocean). A camp is a one or two room structure (sometimes called a "hunting cabin"), usually lacking in electricity and plumbing which is located in the woods or on a lake. Obviously the limitted infrastructure creates some challenges. It also makes them quite a bit less expensive.

The key, however, is the view. These are a couple views from mine.

From this bucolic location I drove last Saturday back home to Natick to help prepare for and then participate in the annual Spagetti Dinner/Church School Registration night. The next morning, I preached the "Kickoff" Sunday sermon. Here it is...

Doers of the Word
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
September 10, 2006

This is the year

This is the year that we celebrate
The power of our faith
And the strength of our community
This is the year that we worship and learn
Mourn and be comforted together
This is the year that our neighbors
Hear the joyful noise coming from the Eliot Church
Prophetic and Strong

It is the year we get to know each other even better
In meetings, potlucks at home and at church
In worship services and Sunday School

It is the year we will lend a hand
In ways large and small
To friends and strangers in need
And the year we will honor the past
While looking toward the future

This is also the year that we lean in to listen
To the still small voice
Whispering to us from our own hearts
It is the year that we will sit in silence
And pray our own private prayers

It is that year, (I hope)
And I know you hope so, too
A year when great things will flow from our shared ministry
From what we do as a church

James wrote
Be doers of the word and not merely hearers
“The Word” here meaning (among other things) Divine wisdom
But for James wisdom was much more
Than passive understanding
Instead, the Word is an active force
Motivating us to step out of ourselves
To go forth to seek and discover the ultimate truth

When we think of this passage
And of the Epistle of James in general
We often consider its implications
For social justice and outreach ministries
Service to the community at large
And it makes sense that we would
Yet his message is broader and deeper than that

Again, from the passage we read today
James tells us that
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

There is a challenge implied in this passage
A requirement from James to be both engaged and separate
Which is difficult to accomplish
Even with the best of intentions

How can we, care for others yet remain unstained?
The answer, of course is
That it isn’t being “in” the world that is the problem
But being “of” it
Becoming so much a slave to the expectations of society
That we become strangers—not just to the poor or to God
But to ourselves

Now next week we will be talking about service
Specifically about the ministry that this church is beginning
In relationship with the Pine Street Inn
An organization fighting homelessness
And providing affordable housing opportunities in Boston

But this week, this “Kickoff Sunday”
I am going to focus on that second part of James’
Pure and Undefiled religion
That is, not so much what we do for others
But what we do to keep our own feet on the right path
And how this congregation helps us do that
For while the church is an agent for change
A beacon and light in the dark places of society
It is able to do this and perform powerful ministries
Beyond our doors
Because it also serves the same function
In our own hearts and souls
You see the Word
Does have a contemplative component

The role of our faith isn’t just [in the words of John Dewey)
For conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received
It is also for supporting, healing
Nurturing the spiritual lives of those individuals who are trying
To make sense of what they see and do

Spirituality is a part of our humanness
It may seem that the term is best applied
To hermits living in caves
Or mountain monasteries in Tibet and Europe
But our tradition tells us that the transcendent
Is accessible everywhere
That wisdom can be found in the mundane
All of creation has the Spirit within

The religious life, of course, doesn’t preclude
Participating in the world
Feeling pain and outrage
And it does not prevent the experience of
Pleasure at what is around us

The protestant minister Eugene Peterson
Tells a story about a Catholic mystic and nun Teresa of Avila
It appears that the now Saint Teresa
Really enjoyed her food
Once when she was enthusiastically devouring a chicken
One of the other nuns expressed her shock and disapproval
At Teresa’s behavior
To which Teresa replied
When I eat chicken, I eat chicken, when I pray, I pray
For her, the simple acts of going through the day
Were as much a part of the religious life as prayer and worship
Peterson puts it this way
There is an intimacy with God, but it is like any other intimacy; it is part of the fabric of your life.

This may be true
But still circumstances can sometimes threaten
To tear that fabric apart
There is tension in our living
We can struggle at times
With the desire to conform to the
Pressures that are placed upon us

So Thank God we are not alone
Our faith and tradition are there to help
When the going gets rough
Now some people may say
That some religious liberals have compromised too much
With the secular world
And perhaps have been conquered by it
That is a real risk, of course, just as it is with all faiths

But our willingness
To say that we do not know all there is to know about God
To remain open to new perspectives and new voices
To accept that (as they say in the United Church of Christ)
That God is still Speaking
Our openness places its own sorts of requirements on us
And we are answerable and responsible to
Principles that have as much of a hold
As any creed or doctrine
Our faith—at its best
Isn’t so much a compromise between
Our ethics/our morals
Our sense of what God wants us to do
On one side
And our desire for what is crass and ungodly on the other
Instead it is a commitment to values and to a world view
That embraces diversity
And encourages us to boldly go
(Yes) where no one has gone before
In all our differences of opinion
In all the various directions we may take as individuals
Here we are committed to becoming and being
A community of radical hospitality
Of faith-filled welcome

People have many different reasons
For coming through those doors for the first time
People have many different reasons for staying…

“I come here to worship God” some say
Others aren’t so sure about God
But wish to follow the path of the rabbi and reformer Jesus
Still others tell us
“I wanted a community in which to raise my kids”
Or “I love being in this building”
And enjoy “seeing my friends and making new ones”
A few come here for intellectual stimulation
And others (though they may not admit it)
Come for the coffee

All of you—(all of us!)
Have found a place, a religious home
Based on mutual respect and a covenant
To walk together, Going
(In the words of Fredrick Lewis Hosmer)
Forward through the ages
In unbroken line

This morning we read together the words from Kenneth Patton:
This house is for the ingathering of nature and human nature. It is a house of friendships, a haven in times of trouble, an open room for the encouragement of our struggle… [It] is a cradle for our dreams, the workshop of our common endeavor.

No matter what our expressed reason for attending
This idea of church as a dynamic place
And “doing church” as something more than an exercise in nostalgia
Of being together working on a joint project of great importance
One no less than the exploration of our own existence
And the Wisdom of God
This idea runs through all that we do here
We are working together

We are working together/But we are still individuals
With our own goals and dreams
The challenge
My challenge, the challenge for our lay leaders and
The challenge that lies ahead for you
Is to figure out how
We can take all these different perspectives
All these differing understandings
Of the “hows” and “whys”
The profound mysteries of the world
All this great energy around our building today
And then use it
To help us grow and maintain
This gift that has been given to us
The congregation of the Eliot Church

Verse One in Psalm 15 asks God
Who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell in your holy hill
The rest of the psalm tries to answer that question
Including Those who walk blamelessly and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart

Or, if you prefer, people who
In the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus/Unite for the worship of God/And the service of all
This could be the year
This could be the year for communities such as this
And it will be,
It will be at least, a time of joy and sadness
Of peace and war, of hope and of love
All the moments great and small of which life is made

It will be a great year
A great year like and unlike any other
And special to we who are fortunate enough
To bear witness to its unfolding


Monday, September 11, 2006

Is This the End?

I am 80% sure that it is...for Unity, I mean. Church is going along at its usual hectic pace for this time of year. Sons 1,2,and 3 seem to feel that they are deserving of my time and attention. I believe that my wife feels the same way!

I haven't been posting lately because there has been so much else going on. Some of it is good, some of it is less so, but they are priorities in a way that this is not. Maybe I will change my mind or maybe I will be back, but right now my priorities are elsewhere. I will let you know when I finally make up my mind in its entirety.