Monthly Archives: April 2012

A List to Live By

Richard, my spouse, loves lists. He developed a list of gift cards we have at our disposal and posted it on the refrigerator so we know to use them before they expire. Richard maintains his own “Honey Do” lists, too: one is a daily list, and the second (again, posted on the refrigerator) is for long-term projects. When we lived in Texas he even scheduled activities for the kids’ visits on an Excel spreadsheet. At first we teased Richard about the spreadsheet; later, however, we appreciated its time-saving value. And I learned very early in our relationship to never present him with any Honey Do list which I compiled.

Lists are often useful tools for helping us prioritize our lives. They can be as simple as a daily To Do list, or as profound as what is sometimes called a “bucket list”–a list of things to do before we die (kick the bucket). Throughout history many people have used the tenets of various religions as information for compiling what we might call their “eternal bucket lists”–that is, things to do in order to secure a carefree and peaceful afterlife. These lists, of course, often vary by the religion of choice.

I understand the sincerely felt need for these lists, too. Belief in an afterlife–a “heaven” for “good” people and a “hell” for “bad” people–can fill our need for justice when bad things happen to good people and when good things happen to bad people in this life. Belief in an afterlife can also help address our very real fear of death.

I also believe some religious authorities in the past used–and some today still use–the promise of heaven and the threat of hell as little more than behavioral control devices, as though no one can make good moral and ethical life choices without such promises and threats. In the end, however, no matter how strongly we believe–or not–in an afterlife and its attendant rewards and/or punishments, the existence of an afterlife and those rewards and/or punishments can neither be proved nor disproved.

And for the folks who are being “good” just to hedge their bets? Well, if you believe God is a separate being who is going to judge the actions of our lives when we die, don’t you think that God would be aware of such scams? And knowing that, would you really want to face such an entity when you die?

At the same time, when it comes to living well, we aren’t without guidance. The prophet Micah reminds us that we have already been shown what is good and what is required: to do what is just, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Later, words attributed to Jesus summarize all the law and prophets as loving God, neighbor and self. Other faiths contain similar teachings. These are the actions and attitudes that lead to life.

Justice. Mercy. Humility. Love.

Now that just might be a list to live–and die–by.

Blessings on your journeys!

Best. Holy Week. Ever.

This week many of my ministerial-type colleagues, worship team leaders, music directors and so on are taking some much-deserved time off. For the past several weeks these faithful folks have led special Lenten studies, spent hours rehearsing plays, skits and music, studied, written and rehearsed thought-provoking sermons, led multiple Holy Week services and the list goes on and on. Then on Easter all the hard work came together–more or less–and countless souls were inspired by moving Easter morning services.

Then everyone involved heaved a collective sigh of relief and collapsed. What? You thought that big “thud” was the stone being rolled away from the tomb?

We had two wonderful services at Holy Covenant this Easter, as well. And yes, I was plenty tired by the time I went to bed last Sunday night. The focus of this post, however, is Holy Week–the week immediately preceding the glitz, glamour and pageantry of Easter morning. And it is entirely possible I just experienced my most meaningful Holy Week ever. And just what did I do to make Holy Week so meaningful this year?


By “nothing,” I mean I did not plan and conduct even one additional service. See, I’ve learned in the past couple of years that a large majority of our congregation isn’t big on either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services. So I now provide folks with options for these services which are held at other churches. In the past, we have shared Good Friday service responsibilities with local congregations. This year, however, no one was interested in doing so. “OK,’ I thought to myself, ‘now what?”

So this year I attended an amazing UU Seder at Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Church on Good Friday. I helped set the tables, took a turn reading, and helped clear the tables after the event. Still, I was not in charge of the event; and that fact alone did a lot to help me relax and enjoy the experience.

I spent Holy Saturday relaxing with coffee and the Sci-Fi channel during the morning, then working in our yard during the afternoon. I even reflected on the life of Jesus while I worked, too. This was not an intentional practice, either. Discarding dead winter vegetation and making room for the new spring plant life to breathe and grow just led me in that direction. Richard and I enjoyed a quiet Saturday evening dinner together, and then–because I am seriously not an early morning person–I spent about an hour at the church making sure everything was in order for Easter morning. That’s it.

So what made this year’s Holy Week so meaningful for me?

I believe because I was actually able to slow down and think about life, death and resurrection without all the well-intended insanity of the additional traditional Holy Week activities informed not only my Easter sermon–CSI: Jesus–but this reflective time also helped me release some old strongly held beliefs regarding what is most important during these often stressful seasons of the church year.

Don’t get me wrong; I have absolutely nothing against all the traditional activities offered by many churches during Easter and other seasons of the church year. You know me, if something helps deepen your connection with the Divine Presence already within you, go for it! At the same time, has anyone else ever wondered why seasons that are intended for careful reflection, renewal and joy often drain almost every ounce of energy we possess?

Is it possible that maybe–just maybe–we’re holding on to a few too many observances “just because”; and by doing so, we risk missing the intended messages of seasons like Easter? Are there ways we can renew and reform some of these services in ways that are less stressful for planners and participants while retaining their intended messages? Indeed, what would our community lives look like if we held fewer “special seasonal services,” and lived out the intended messages of those services year round?

Just something to consider…

Tea Light Theology

While greeting people at church following a recent Sunday service, I noticed a congregant standing just off to the side of the middle aisle. He was staring at me quite intently, and the look on his face was not pleasant. When I waved a greeting to him, he motioned for me to join him. I finished greeting the people in line then moved to join him.

During my five second journey I was doing what many pastors probably do in these situations—I was rewinding through the service and reflection as fast as I could. The music seemed fine. I preached on Mark 1:12-13, which is Mark’s version of Jesus’ wilderness experience. I interpreted the beasts, angels and even Satan metaphorically, encouraging people to consider Jesus’ experience as our own–dealing with our own beasts and accusers (“The Accuser” is one meaning for “Satan”)–as well as being willing to accept love and care from the angels in our lives. So, nothing too outrageous.

He asked me to walk with him to the front of the sanctuary, where he pointed to the three candles on our communion table.  For a little background information, we don’t burn scented candles at our church. We melt them down a bit then place unscented tea lights inside. As it turns out, I learned from our congregant that it was possible for people to see one of the tea lights, and to him that visual was just “cheap and tacky.” He then went on to say when he invited a close friend to attend service with him, the friend replied, “I’m not going to go sit and stare at that tea light!”


I knew the friend he mentioned; so I wondered to myself where that comment came from, especially since this person had not been to church for a few months. Both men have attended our church for years long before I arrived; and both men have come and gone throughout those years. Still, I just found it amazing that a person would stop coming to church because they could see a tea light sitting in a candle. Over the years I’ve heard many reasons why people stopped attending church; tea light visuals, however, was a new one.

I thanked our congregant for his input, and then watched as he turned and walked away without saying “Goodbye.” I was sincere in my appreciation, too. He made a good point about the tea light being visually distracting from the other two candles, and it is an easy fix; in fact, it’s already done–although I doubt anyone will notice. And yes, I know the deeper issue isn’t really about the tea light at all, but most likely it is about something else going on in these congregants’ lives. For example, these guys enjoy very traditional worship; and we haven’t had very traditional worship service formats for almost three years now. So perhaps the tea light episode is their way of saying they don’t like the changes. And yes, I’ve offered to listen to and speak with both men in the past years. So far, nothing. And that’s OK, too. Forced conversation usually isn’t all that helpful, anyway.

What does bother me about this episode, however, is it represents for me so much of what is troubling about churches today. In his book, The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus, pastor and author Robin Meyers makes this statement: “Here’s the problem: most of what people argue about in the church doesn’t matter.”

Don’t get me wrong; I think its important to closely consider and plan things like music, lighting (tea or otherwise), sermon presentation, order of services, etc. For me, at least part of the reason we attend church is to learn more about how to live, love and be–both as individuals and as a community. We come together to learn more about how to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the God of our understanding. We come together to learn more about how to love the God of our understanding, our neighbors and ourselves. These are  important reasons to gather; and too many distractions and too much fragmentation during our times together doesn’t help  anyone do anything–but complain, that is. At the same time, when we get too hung up on the aesthetics of church–on “tea light theology,” if you will–we are introducing just as much fragmentation and distraction into our communities of faith as when we totally ignore these things.

Who knows? Maybe we practice tea light theology because its easier to do than actually going out and following the teachings of Jesus.

To be honest, I don’t think God really cares how we sing or recite the Lord’s Prayer, or even if we sing or recite it at all. I don’t think God cares if we use candles, tea lights, disco balls or no light at all. I don’t think God cares how many times a year we observe communion, or even if we observe it at all. I don’t think God cares what color our sanctuaries are, or if we even have buildings. I don’t think it matters at all to God whether I wear robes, clerical collars or a t-shirt. Feel free to add as many items to this list as you want, too. These are the concerns of tea light theology–and they are threatening to drain the church of any legitimate voice we have left in this world.

Remember, justice, mercy and love are at the center of most of the world’s religions–not colors, music, lighting and fabrics. It also doesn’t matter if we’re Christian, Unitarian Universalist, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Humanist, a combination of these traditions and more–whatever. I agree with Robin Meyers when he says, “It’s time to start auditing one another’s classes.” Denomination/Assocication/Religious identity and unity are great–just not at the cost of working together to practice justice, mercy and love.

And what if we can learn to practice justice, mercy and love, and still have great music, lighting, color and fabric choices? Sure! Why not?

Let’s just try to keep our priorities in order, OK?

Blessings on your journeys!