Prophetic-Preacher vs. Poetic-Pastor

The minister, like the church, has various duties. But two duties rule absolutely supreme. These two supreme duties serve as the conduits through which all of the other ministerial duties flow. These two job supreme duties are 1.) preaching and 2.) pastoring.

Preaching is based on the model of another P word, the Prophet. The Prophet literally means “God’s voice” or “God’s messenger.” The Prophet in the Hebrew Bible, aka the Old Testament, is a figure who having been given a message from God cannot help but to shout that message to the world around him or her. John the Baptist is also referred to as a Prophet who prepares the way for Jesus.

The Prophet is basically God’s megaphone through which God tells the truth to the masses.

The Preacher is basically the Protestant equivalent of a modern-day prophet. In fact, the traditional, Evangelical teaching I grew up with claims that the need for the Prophet ended with the completion of the Bible, God's "final word." The Preacher served the role of the Prophet in that he preached the Bible and God's direct message to us via the Bible. 

The preacher in the least preaches God’s good news of redemptive love and does so in a public and vocal fashion. Often the preacher in presenting the gospel will point to social issues or worldly failings. This can range from fundamentalist preachers expressing disdain for the "sexual promiscuity" of our culture to liberal preachers expressing disdain for the economic inequity of our age. To these problems, both preachers offer the basic message that God can fix it if we take heed and listen.

We see a dilemma in the difference between the fundamentalist preacher and liberal preacher. Who is the true prophet and who is the false prophet? Who is hearing God’s message correctly or interpreting the message of the Bible correctly and giving it voice correctly? Whose preaching / prophecy is correct?

Often these days, Prophecy is equated with partisan politics. Cornel West, for example, claims the mantle of the Black prophetic tradition. West is famous for being an unapologetic Progressive. And I happen to agree with him on most political matters. However, the Prophetic tradition he claims is clearly informed by Progressive Politics and a Liberation theological reading of the Bible.

Now, juxtaposed to West is the fact that Black preachers who are obviously more politically and more theologically moderate if not conservative are deemed Prophets too. T.D. Jakes comes to mind. A Christian Post article from 2012 says it all: “Bishop TD Jakes Honored as 'Prophetic Voice.’” Cornel West would probably disagree with this. Hence, our dilemma.

Another example is the Pro-Life movement and its own claiming of the mantle of the Prophetic tradition. For example, a recent article on the Catholic online journal Catholic365 has this title: “The Prophetic Voice of Humanae Vitae.” Humanae Vitae is the papal cyclical from 1968 that affirms the Catholic Church’s ardent pro-life stance.

The internal dynamics of the Black Prophetic Tradition itself also points to the dilemma. Malcolm X, based in the Muslim prophetic tradition, argued for a Civil Rights approach that did not rule out violence as a means to the end of full equality. Malcolm X was open to racial separatism, i.e., Pan-Africanism,  as a solution. Martin Luther King, based in the Christian prophetic tradition, was a strong supporter of nonviolence and full integration. 

Whose “brand” of prophecy was right? By what criteria do we judge? Personal experience and expression? The Bible which itself requires personal interpretation?  And we know how easy it is to justify just about anything using biblical interpretation. (The old pro-slavery and anti-slavery shared use of the Bible is illustrative of this.)

Then there is the issue of religious pluralism. Would the Bible's criteria for a true prophet apply to Malcolm X,  a Muslim? 

Whose Prophetic voice is the true one is just as difficult a question to answer as whose politics is the correct one.  The answers given depends on the political-philosophical-theological worldview of the person responding to the question. Without some shared tool, a singular benchmark, an agreed upon criteria to measure those answers, partisanship will keep on ensuing.

The Catholic tradition, the "original" institution of the  Church, made it easier. The Catholic Church realized the dilemma over who was authoritative in measuring Truth. The Church’s answer was the Papacy. The Pope is the criteria-maker, the truth-measurer, the dogma-correcter. The Pope’s interpretation of the biblical text and church tradition to this day, at least theoretically, amounts to the final human word on subjects of essential import.

However, with the Protestant Reformation and the rise of Democracy it soon became clear the pope’s authority rested on the a priori belief in papal power. Take away the idea that the pope is somehow special and authoritative, and gone is the single criterion to measure religious claims. Whether this is a good thing or not is a meaningless question. It is simply a reality that there no longer exists, if there ever existed, a singular measuring stick one can use in answering political and religious questions.

What is a preacher to do? What can a preacher do in this thoroughly diverse – politically, religiously, etc. – age? What can a preacher do when there is no agreed upon criterion or shared biblical exegesis in the pews or elsewhere? What can a preacher do when the Prophetic tradition, by definition based in religious claims, is meaningless to an increasingly irreligious yet increasingly partisan age? Either the preacher, claiming the mantle of the prophetic tradition, is preaching to the choir or to people who simply tune the preacher out because of that preacher’s presumed theological or political persuasion.  

We see the same dynamic in the realm of Christian denominations. It seems, based on the data, the more a denomination assumes the mantle of the Prophetic tradition, the greater its decline. Evidence #1? The United Church of Christ. The UCC has been at the forefront in the struggle for LGBT equality, Racial Justice, and Environmental stewardship. They literally claim the Prophetic tradition. However, the UCC is the fastest dying Mainline denomination in the U.S. 

Next to the UCC, the denomination most fervently claiming the mantle of the Prophetic tradition is the Episcopal Church. It too is steeply declining.

Moreover, while certainly most of the other denominations are less progressive and prophetic collectively, individual mainline ministers are usually more progressive than their denomination’s mission and most certainly their congregants. A big percentage of Mainline ministers would, I imagine, say they at least aim to be Prophetic from the pulpit.

Regardless, both denominations and denominational preachers share one big thing in common – they are message-giving entities. Denominations and preachers have something to say and to share and they focus on how to best do this. Denominations and preachers are necessarily active, proactive, intentional about preaching the gospel as they understand it. But is this working for most denominations or denominational preachers?

I don’t think it is, at least not alone.

Here I come to the other main duty of the minister – pastoral care. If preaching is all about speaking, pastoral care is all about listening.  If preaching is all about getting us to think deeply and consider a religious truth, pastoral care is all about getting us to share deeply and experience the presence of God.

The minister needs both. Good preaching and good pastoral care equals good ministry. However, it is my sense that for far too long there has been far too much emphasis placed on good preaching. Preaching became the foundation upon which everything else, including Pastoral Care, was built. The Prophetic preaching focus too often displaces Pastoral Presence as the most important, meaningful, and lasting thing a minister does.

The old adage is true – people don’t care about how much you know until they know that you care. Pastoral Care is the foundation of all a minister does, including Prophetic preaching. If a Prophetic voice is to be heard and heeded, that voice must come from a pastor first wholly present with those hurting, grieving, trying to find their way. We cannot divorce Prophetic voice from Pastoral Presence. If we do, no one will listen.

What’s more, good pastoral care is the best tool we have to bridge the political divide within our churches and within our country. Good pastoral care transcends politics and partisanship. Good pastoral care sets the stage for good listening to happen, and eventually bridges to be built and walked across. 

We are past presuming people listen to authority figures, minister or otherwise. People are more adept than ever at tuning out things they disagree with or that make them feel uncomfortable. Yes, congregants may be entertained or educated by our good preaching. It might fill the pews even. But this doesn’t necessarily translate to transforming our culture which is of utmost importance at this point. Just looks at megachurches filled with wonderful preaching yet fostering little social transformation and in fact merely affirming our individualistic culture.

It has been affirmed again and again that when it comes to truly changing hearts, discursive activities such as preaching or listening to a minister preach, or for that matter hearing a politician use the bully-pulpit, are less helpful than forging human relationships. Walking aside someone for a little part of their sojourn is far more important a task than preaching to someone every Sunday morning.

And for those who are not part of the Choir ministers perennially preach to, it will be exceedingly rare that good preaching will draw them in, change their hearts, or move them to new ways of being, at least not long term. Establishing a rapport and nurturing a friendship with strangers, with the Other, with those we too easily demonize – this is what truly cultivates transformed individuals, groups, and cultures.

The gift of presence, of real, quiet, consistent presence is a lost art form in this day and age. People are flitting from screen to screen. Real and meaningful connection and community, both are a precious commodity despite our interconnected age. Experiencing a caring and compassionate institution is also very rare; and the minister sets the stage for this kind of institution.

All of this is to say, Pastoral Presence, beginning with the pastor and filtering to all living in community, this is the new Prophetic voice, the Prophetic call of our time.

This is why the Mindfulness Revolution is genuine. Mindfulness amounts to building the capacity in us to be present. Mindfulness, the practice of being present to and with ourselves, gives way to the ability to be present with others.

If we lessen the importance of preaching and increase the importance of pastoral care, what are we left with on Sunday morning? Worship service still has as its centerpiece “the sermon.” We cannot simply let our sermons become mediocre because they are more secondary.

Granted that we cannot make the sermon disappear, here are a couple recommendations:

1.) With each sermon being written, ask what about it expresses pastoral care?
2.) Use the memorial and the eulogy, which is basically a spiritual biography, as a template for Sunday mornings. Pastoral care is built into the memorial and the eulogy.
3.) Practice writing poetry and try using poetry in the place of the sermon once in awhile.

Yes, that’s right – poetry. Why? Because poetry, if done right (and it can be learned), is perfect at merging head and heart. Poetry is perfect at moving us to contemplate meaning and experience the intangible. Listening to, experiencing poetry, and writing it, helps us to be more still and more present. In turn, being more present opens in us a clearer way forward.

The art form known as Hip-Hop also tells us that performance is important too.

What if instead of hermeneutics and the art of the homily, seminaries taught the poetry and the art of writing a poem? I for one think it would revolutionize the way we do church and return Her to the Parable-Poet named Jesus who as the Word taught with stylized stories (aka Poetry).

The Pastoral-Poetic Voice is now more essential than the Preachers-Prophetic Voice. In an ugly and loud world, beauty and quiet are better able to break through it all.  In a time of information overload and overthinking, brush strokes of expression and experience, passion and compassion, more naturally make their way through the madness. In an era where everyone is a Prophet preaching their own absolute truth, it is the Poet who thaws the ice-walls dividing us and warms the cold days of winter’s discontent.

It is interesting how we have deified the Prophetic tradition as if it is the only format God has ever used to point us to Truth. The Hebrew Bible indeed has the Prophetic books, but it also has the Writing, namely the Psalms. Jesus indeed was prophetic but used Parables (narrative poetry) as his preferred means to declare The Real. 

We are now living in the Psalmic-Parabolic Age. Preachers, churches, denominations – adjust.  

Political Diversity & Jesus' Non-Negotiables

We live in such a polarized society. It has only gotten worse this election season. Or it has merely been highlighted more, I am not sure. But it seems things have gotten so bad that we’ve taken political persuasion and have given it essential, almost religious importance and meaning. In other words, it has gotten so bad that for many people, if someone holds to a different political philosophy, they are wrong in the eyes of God. For some Democrats, for example, it is a sin to be a Republican, it seems. And vice versa. For some Republicans, it is a sin to be a Democrat. In fact, we have proof of this. In a San Diego church, a church bulletin included a flyer that said, “It is a mortal sin to vote Democrat… Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell.” Now, if Democrats went to church, you might find a similar thing the other way.

As much as I am of a political persuasion, and I will not, I will never share with you which from this pulpit, I am not egotistical enough to believe my political philosophy equals essential truth and thus has all the answers. No, as much as the political animal in me would like to say otherwise, it is not a sin to be a Republican. Or a Democrat, or a Libertarian or a Green.

That said, as a Christian or a Unitarian-Universalist, there are I believe some non-negotiables when it comes to how we live our lives and construct society around us. There are certain things that Jesus demanded his followers pursue and seek to make real. Jesus had a vision of the way things ought to be. Certainly, we might disagree about how we get there, but Jesus made it clear that we must get there. He also made it clear what the there looks like. He called that “there,” that realm we are called to make real, the Commonwealth of God. (I should note that this term Commonwealth of God is a better translation, a closer translation, of the term we know as “the kingdom of God.” Theologian John Cobb points this out in his recent book.)

I wanted to discuss some of Jesus’ non-negotiables as we come to the end of this sinfully horrible political season. What kind of society should we all want? What does the Commonwealth of God look like? If you answer either one of these questions and you answer the other.

I begin my answer with a verse that I’ve been mentioning a lot of late. It’s a verse I’ve been thinking a lot about and meditating on. It comes from Micah 6:8. It is a verse Jesus knew, for sure. We see it lived-out in his life.
That verse goes like this:

“The LORD has made it clear to you, mortal, what is good and what is required of you— to act with justice, to love compassion, and to walk humbly with your God.”

I encourage you this week to use this verse as a daily meditation. It helps me to get through.

What is required of us as individuals is certainly true of a society. The goal of the Commonwealth of God is a society that is just, compassionate, and humble. These things – justice, compassion, and humility – these are the seeds of the Commonwealth of God.

Now, Jesus, as I mentioned, knew this verse. Jesus famously offered up another “what is required of you” statement. In fact, it neatly sings in harmony with Micah 6:8. I am referring to Jesus’ famous greatest commandments. They come to us in Matthew 22. Let me read from this passage:

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
      37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” 

The Pharisee, a religious lawyer, pretty much asks Jesus what is the basic requirement when trying to live a good life as a faithful Jew? Jesus offers the greatest commandments, the two that are vital for the good life, the two that all the world’s religious faith’s hang on.

This passage gives us an order of things. It gives us a 1 then a 2. Love God is number 1. Love Neighbors is number 2. Loving Neighbor naturally arises from Loving God. This nice little order of things helps us read Micah 6:8 and give an order of things, it helps us know what happens first, justice, compassion, or humility?

Using Jesus’ first commandment, to love God, as our guide, we see that walking humbly with God is number 1. First of all, God is the aim of both loving God and walking humbly with God. What's more, walking humbly and loving overlap. To love means to walk with or to move with, doesn’t it? And to love God means to walk in humility with God. To love mean to know humility, where I let go of selfishness and me-firstness for the sake of the other and for the sake of the relationship. Humility born from walking with God, born from walking with Love itself, this is the foundation upon which justice and compassion are constructed.

So Humility is the cornerstone of the Commonwealth of God. What does this mean? What does it look like?

Humility means emptying ourselves and avoiding the temptation of inflating our egos. Humility means seeing that no one is less or more human than you are and that others should all be treated as you'd like to be treated.

Humility starts with the acknowledgment I am not alone in this thing called life. As Don Henley and Stevie Wonder sing, “In case you haven't noticed there are lots of other people here, too.”

There are other people all around us. There is also the Holy Other often called God. There is as well the natural world around us needing care and compassion. Placing our finite selves within the infinite scheme of things, seeing ourselves as a small part of a vastly expansive whole, seeing ourselves as one creature in Creative-Spirit God’s universe of creatures, this is at the heart of humility.

We don’t often hear it said, but a just and compassionate society must be, first and foremost, humble. The commonwealth of God, a just and compassionate society, begins with humility, with seeing our singular selves as part of a common self, a community of selves. The word Common-wealth says it all. Individual autonomy and self-sufficiency are important, but the goal is common-wealth, shared-wealth, shared-prosperity. To get to that goal requires humility, a practice of putting others and the Holy Other first.

Jesus points to the Commonwealth of God being first and foremost humble when he points to children. For Jesus, children are the model not only of faith but children are a model of what it means to be a citizen in the Commonwealth of God. If you want to know what it means to be a citizen in God’s commonwealth, look at children. The gospel of Luke shows us this.

Luke 18:

15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 

What do children teach us about humility? Children teach us that part of humility includes admitting I can't do it all, I need a nurturing, I need some help, I need to let others care for me and let myself receive this care. Emptying self sometimes means being selfish enough to know that I need a lot of help and care sometimes. This is the kind of humility children teach us. Receiving God's care, other's care and practicing self-care as much possible is what children do naturally.

Then in Luke 22, during the Last Supper which we will commemorate a little later, Jesus teaches us some more:

24 A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25 Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

Children are the perfect exemplars of humility, Jesus tells us in his teaching.

The children are not just our perfect model, they are, they must be, the perfect measure of a just and compassionate society. The commonwealth of God is marked first and foremost by children who are safe, secure, nourished and cared for. The Commonwealth of god places children at the center. If just one child is malnourished, neglected, poor, then the commonwealth of god remains simply a dream yet to be realized.

A just, compassionate, and humble society places children at the forefront and says if one child goes hungry while another goes overfed, when one child goes neglected while another is overprotected, when one child lives in an environment marked by poverty and emptiness and another marked by wealth and opportunity, then that society is missing the mark and sinning against God and humanity.

The non-negotiables in a politically diverse society, the sacred aim we should all have, are justice, compassion and humility, and the measure of these things is the welfare of our children. Children are the sacred measure of a nation’s status. 

Let me clear as I can as I close: Whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, Green, or independent, we should all want all of our children to be safe, secure, well-fed and hopeful. We should all want children living lives liberated from worry and strife, hunger and poverty, liberated to be happy. Making this a reality should be our guiding principle. With this as our only guiding principle, we are freed to try different things and see what works and doesn’t work. With this as our only guiding principle, we are free enough to be honest and say when something isn’t working. The welfare – the thriving of our children, the happiness our children – should be our guiding principle. 

And a tenacious, radical pragmatism should be our practice in realizing a just, compassionate, and humble society. Whatever gets us there should be our motto.

Quabbin Giants of Progressive Religion

So today I wanted to delve into a little local history. Local Universalist history, to be exact. You may know or you may not know but this area, from New Salem to Richmond, NH is rich with Universalist and progressive Christian history.

I highlight “rich.” The reason is that it is the last name of the person I begin my talk with. Caleb Rich.

Did you know that the first Universalist church in America was founded in 1778 just down the road in Warwick, Mass? That’s right, while for some reason the Universalist church in Gloucester has for a long time officially gotten the label “first Universalist church in America,” it was Rev. Caleb Rich’s church that according to the history books is the first.

Caleb Rich was born some 50 miles Southeast from here in Sutton, Mass, below Worcester, in 1750. Both of his parents were Congregationalists in Caleb’s early years, but his father converted to the Baptist tradition. Caleb would eventually follow the Baptist way as well, albeit not for long.

Caleb was a sensitive and inquisitive boy. With his father a new-school, Calvinist Baptist and his mother an old-school Calvinist Congregationalist, Caleb naturally wondered who was right. When Rich was a very young man, a question related to this notion of who was right, his father or mother, changed his life. A friend asked him, well, how do you know if either of them is right?

To answer these questions, Rich began a lifelong look into scripture.

When Caleb was 21, he headed north to Warwick to take a position as a farmer. On the journey, he experienced a kind of on the road to Damascus conversion. When he got to Warwick, he began attending the Baptist church (this was back when they had one).

Other religious experiences visited Caleb. They came out of some internal torment Rich was sensing. He had doubts about hell and how it seemed to him the fear of hell was a selfish motive for doing good and loving neighbor. If he, to avoid hell, lived the right way and loved others, wasn’t he doing it, even if to a small degree, simply to save his hide? What kind of impetus is fear of being sent to hell? It is a selfish motive, focused on saving self, not an altruistic one focused solely on helping others.

In 1773, one mystical experience provided him an answer. He experienced an overwhelming sense of God’s grace which overcame any kind of fear of hell’s torments or wrathful judgment. The motive to be like Christ and to live-out the heart of Christ was the one he wanted to apply in his life. This led him to progress toward the Universalist  faith which says God’s love wins completely so that none will endure eternal torment in hell.   

Unitarian Church, Warwick, MA (joined by Universalists)
One step in that process led him to be denied membership in the Baptist church. He expressed his belief that instead of non-Christian souls suffering endlessly in hell their souls simply ceased to exist. The Baptists were aghast at this heresy and dismissed him and his brother who believed the same.

Eventually, after another mystical experience, Rich came to internalize the faith of Universal salvation, a faith he would hold until the day he died. And he founded a church preaching this very idea in the year 1778 in Warwick, Massachusetts, the first church centered on the doctrine of Universal Salvation. In the next 10 years or so, he’d plant churches in Jaffrey and Richmond, NH as well. In 1781, in Warwick, Rich would be ordained by the brand new Universalist Church, the same year this church was built in then South Warwick.

In 1772, just a year after or so after Caleb Rich arrived in Warwick, and less than 10 miles due east, a baby boy named Abner Jones was born in Royalston. Abner Jones, along with fellow New Englander, Connecticut born Elias Smith, would found what was deemed simply as the Christian Church or the Christian Connexion.  The Christian Church would also be an important cornerstone in the development of progressive religion in America.

Like with Caleb Rich, the church developed out of a rejection of Calvinism and its influence in the Baptist tradition.

Abner Jones and Elias Smith rejected the idea central to Calvinism that said salvation was not intended for all but only a limited few. They believed Jesus died for all and salvation was intended for all. It is human’s free will that choses either to accept it or reject it.  Jones and Smith preached these ideas of Jesus dying for all and salvation intended for all with human’s having free will making the difference. They preached these ideas very hard and they are central the Christian Connexion. They were also very progressive ideas for their time, a time when Calvinism reigned supreme. As I mentioned, Calvinism said just the opposite – Jesus died for the Elect and free will when it came to salvation did not exist or matter.

The Christian Church also called for a decentralized, back to basics, non-creedal church.  The Christian Church grew in New England and in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.

Both the Unitarian and Universalist churches would expound and expand on these progressive ideas. In fact, Elias Smith on and off expressed acceptance of the Universalist faith which said not only did Jesus die for all and salvation was intended for all, in the end all would be won over by God’s grace and all would be saved. Smith’s Universalist tendencies brought him a great deal of criticism and exclusion by the Christian connexion he helped found.

In 1931, the Christian Church still then centered in New England merged with the Congregational Church to form the Congregational Christian Church, which the Congregational side of this church once was a part of. In 1959, the Congregational Christian Church merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to create the United Church of Christ.

363 days before Abner Jones was born and only some 8 miles across the border north, in Richmond, New Hampshire, a baby boy named Hosea Ballou was born. As a young man, he would be mentored by none other than Caleb Rich who had established a church in his hometown of Richmond. Hosea Ballou would go onto become one of the most important progressive religious preachers and a pivotal figure in the growth of the Universalist Church.

Ballou held to the idea of Ultra-Universalism. Ballou believed that not only would no human being ever face an eternal place in the afterlife called hell, but that hell did not exist in the afterlife at all. Hell exists in this life. As UU historian Ernest Cassara writes, “Ballou adopted the radical position that human beings are rewarded for good behavior, or punished for their misdeeds, in this life. At death they are transformed by the power of God's love as they enter eternity.”

I for one have trouble with this idea of “Ultra-Universalism.” I do, however, ponder that in the dying process, people who’ve lived harmful and hurtful lives often endure difficulty in their deaths. I also think right after death, after the spirit is leaving the body, God’s work continues to work on the Spirit. And for the Spirit transitioning away from the body, the time during this transition is not human time but God-time. Those who’ve lived harmful and hurtful lives in that God-time as the Spirit as it leaves the body might have to endure a period of psychological darkness as a consequence for their harmful and hurtful lives. Maybe this is part of the process Ballou describes as “at death being transformed by the power of God’s love.”    

Anyway, Hosea Ballou’s first church after converting to Universalism was a church that stood 17 miles South. The church no longer stands. In fact, the town sits below the Quabbin. Hosea Ballou served the Universalist church in Dana, Massachusetts from 1794 to 1803.

In 1799, New Salem native Nathaniel Stacy was living in Bridgewater, Vermont. That year, the Universalist General Convention was in Woodstock, just 7 miles east. Stacy, a newly convert to Universalism, attended that 1799 Convention in Woodstock. There he met Hosea Ballou. Stacy and Ballou, being at one time town neighbors, became fast friends. Stacy just a year later, in 1800, returned to New Salem. In 1801, Stacy moved to Dana, taking a job as a store clerk in town. As Unitarian-Universalist historian and Orange native Mark Harris puts it, “This location gave him the opportunity of regular interaction with Ballou, who lived in Dana. The next year he apprenticed himself to a clockmaker. One day Ballou came into the shop and asked him, ‘Brother Stacy, what are you tinkering here for?’ He had not been able to settle on a career, Ballou told Stacy, because preaching was his true business. Until he began to serve as a minister he would not be happy. Ballou offered to become his teacher and, in October, 1802, took Stacy into his home and study.”

Stacy would go on to be the greatest evangelist in the early days of the Universalist Church. Starting in 1805, he began circuit preaching all the way into Central New York. In fact, the town where I was serving as a Hospice Chaplain before coming here, Whitestown, New York outside of Utica, was one of five preaching stations Nathaniel Stacy preached. He eventually established a Universalist church in Whitestown in 1807.

In 1800, in Stacy’s first year back in this area, and 7 years before planting a church in Whitestown, he attended the Universalist General Convention. Hosea Ballou was there. Caleb Rich was there. Actually, Stacy, Ballou, and Rich, and numerous other Universalists weren’t there, they were here. The 1800 Universalist General Convention was held right here, presided by Hosea Ballou, the same church his grand-nephew Levi Ballou would some 43 years later would begin serving as minister and would do so for over 20 years.

Lastly, in 1803, in Winchester, NH, some 14 miles from here, the Universalist General Convention that year took place. It was at this convention that the famous Winchester Profession was written and approved. It is a landmark expression of the Universalist faith. It still resonates deeply. So I close by reading that profession of faith now some 213 years old.

Article I. We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

Article II. We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

Article III. We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

The Bible as Epic Poem

I want to share with you how I view the Bible. Next week, I will give an overview of the Bible, focusing on the historical development of the Bible.
When I was a younger person, into my 20’s, if I were asked how do you see the Bible, I would have answered I see it as the literal Word of God. I would have quoted I Timothy 3:16 which says All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness. I would have insisted the Bible was inerrant, without error. So that everything the Bible declared was true and truth, and the way things really happened. I would have said the Bible is both a map for our salvation and a newspaper declaring the good news. If I had to classify the Bible in my personal library it would have been placed most certainly in the non-fiction section, the Bible being the most non-fiction texts there are.

After I experienced a crisis of faith in my mid-20’s, I came to see things in a different light. I sojourned into the wilderness of lost faith and often came across and even considered the opposite claim that the Bible is nothing but an antiquated book with a lot of violence and vengeance, exclusivity and an extraordinarily unenlightened view of the world. The Bible was fiction from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 and should not be used in any way to get at truth. If one, according to this opposition view, were to classify the Bible in one’s personal library, it would be in the pure fiction section.

Now, a more moderate view would be the one presented by most mainline denominations: the Bible includes both fiction and non-fiction, yet the overarching message of the Bible is true – God’s Love through Christ offers us grace and life and hope. The famous declaration comes to mind – we take the Bible seriously, but not literally. And the point of it all is Christ.

However, for me, this more moderate view is missing something. It is a missing an elegant way to view the Bible as a whole. It is also missing how we understand the nature of God’s inspiration. How exactly did God inspire, how did God breathe God’s self into the scripture?

I want to offer a way to view the Bible as a whole that answers to these lacks.

It may not surprise anyone that poetry would come into play in my presenting a new way of viewing the Bible.

I offer here that the Bible is a long, epic poem. Let me explain.

If you were to go to your local library, you are likely to see either the Dewey Decimal System of classification of all those books or the Library of Congress system. And if you were to look for poetry, you would find it classified where? In the fiction or non-fiction section? Well, both the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress system place poetry in the non-fiction section.

Here, we have a guard against the critique that says reading the Bible as a poem diminishes its truthiness, to coin a word made famous by Stephen Colbert. Reading a poem , the literalists would claim, is not the same as the reading the history of God’s work in time or a sacred and timeless rendering of just the facts, ma’am. The Bible is non-fiction.

However, a poem isn’t non-fiction in the same way a science text book is. Reading a poem is not the same as reading non-fiction in the normal sense. Poetry speaks to truth, what is real, yet in a way that is no, not literal, but artistic and oriented toward deeper understanding. A poem speaks to truth in a way that is more powerful and profound.

Consider Emily Dickinson speaking of the essential strength and graciousness of hope in her famous poem, poem 314.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

My saying in a literal way that "hope is resilient" is fine. But how much more beautiful and profound is Emily Dickinson saying it with her poem. Why? Because a poem taps into not only the head, but the heart. It engages more of what makes us human. It engages our souls.

The Bible seen and read as a poem does the same.

Now, as mentioned Poetry is categorized as non-fiction in many libraries. Nonetheless, libraries often put books of poetry in their own section, cordoned off from novels and non-fiction. 

This makes sense. Poetry is in a class all its own. Poetry has its own section. Poetry transcends the fiction/non-fiction division. Poetry defies divisions between “the real” and “the unreal.” God is the same. God has a reality all God’s own, transcending all divisions.

Of course, the Bible itself includes various books with different genres. Included in the Bible are actual poems, the Psalms.

Some will state, other than the Psalms, the rest is not literally poetry. They were not written or intended as poetry, so how can we defy authorial intent and call what was not intended to be poetry, poetry?

I will say that the first part of Genesis, where the creation story is told is seen by many Hebrew scholars and readers as poetry. It has the rhythm and structure of poetry in the original Hebrew.

But that still leaves the vast majority remaining that wasn’t written as poetry.

I suggest considering the principle of God’s Inspiration of Scripture. Remember, I said we need an understanding of how God breathed the scriptures into being? We come to that now.

Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals alike often talk about God inspiring the scriptures. God breathed through the hearts, minds, and pens of human authors and out came God’s speaking to us. Yes, the human authors had some free will in the specifics of what they wrote, but the intent, the truth, and the purpose of the words they wrote were God’s. That is known as the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture.

The doctrine of inspiration could be used to explain our contradiction that the Bible is a long, epic poem and yet the vast majority of the authors did not intend to write poetry. What the biblical authors intended as nonfiction history or fact-based narrative, in reality is a God-breathed poem. The poem includes history and narrative but rises above the mundane world and taps into the sacred realm, the realm of what Emerson called the Oversoul of God. So the human authors intended it as the news of the day or of their experience, but the realm of God inspired the beauty and power of the Bible as pure poetry.

Now, we must clarify that the Gospels, the story of the good news for all people incarnated in Jesus Christ, is the climax, the center, the point of the poem. 

The Gospels also beg the question, were Jesus words merely a poem. The answer is rather obvious to me. Jesus taught in Parable. That was his method of teaching the truth of the Father. Another word for Parable for me, anyway, is Poem. Jesus spoke poems to teach the truth of God.

What’s more, Jesus is himself called the Word
in the first chapter of the gospel of John, the Word that was with God and is God . Jesus as the Word can be seen as the ultimate poem of God. Jesus is the poem that became flesh and dwelt among us.

Why does this matter? Why does reading the Bible as a long, epic poem whose theme is the love of God that breaks through the limits of humanity? It matters because we cannot get around the sacredness of the Bible in the world and in the lives of so many. It remains the world’s greatest seller for a reason. We cannot dismiss it. We cannot ignore it or ridicule it without ridiculing millions who find greatest meaning within its pages. At the same time, we who are Christians but not biblical literalists need to read the Bible in a way that is honorable and sacred and meaningful. Reading the Bible as a sacred poem, timeless and boundariless, offers us a way, a way to honor, to see sacredness, and to find meaning in the Bible.

So in our readings and internalizing of the Bible, may we see deeply and find the rhythm and rime, the cadence and the elegance, and even the toughness and loudness of the love of God. May it be so. Amen.

So beginning next week, we will look at the creation story in Genesis. I want to ask that if you have a Bible that is easily totable, bring it. Evangelicals like my parents have often remarked that what separates their churches from mainline churches is that they carry a Bible to church. So if you want to experience what that is like, maybe for the sermon series, you can carry your Bible to church. If not, you can use a pulpit Bible.

Danger: The Path from Ideals to Ideology

READING: Matthew 26:6-

Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

REFLECTION: “Danger: From Ideals to Ideology”

Jesus in our scripture is being extravagantly cared for. He is a man who is facing death, death on a cross. He knows this. His disciples have been told but don’t believe it. The woman in the narrative seems to know. She is preparing him. Jesus sees her compassion and accepts her compassionate act.

Jesus’ disciples do not see her compassion. They are blind to her act of compassion. They instead see misplaced intent and undue extravagance. One speaks for them. “Why are you allowing her to come in here with her expensive perfume she paid thousands of dollars for, thousands that could have been used to help the poor, but instead she is using it on you?” Using this expensive ointment simply to comfort those who are comfortable enough, that is wrong, unjust, sinful. The Gospel of John has Judas offering up this complaint.

They do not believe Jesus is facing imminent death. They do not see the compassion behind the act. They do not see the internal state of the woman. They only presume this woman is robbing the poor with her extravagance. The disciples get it wrong. Jesus lets them know this with a penetrating statement. The poor will always be here. I will not.

What I hear Jesus saying on a deeper level is this: don’t let your ideals become ideology. Don’t let your understanding of God as the absolute become dogmatic absolutism. Don’t let your compassion for the poor become hate for the un-poor. Don't be attached to only one mode of compassion. Don’t let your care for one person become animosity toward a different person.

Not much at all in this life is black and white or always obviously right or wrong. There is nuance. There is gray. There are at least two sides to every story. There are varying views of things and often one view isn’t absolutely right and the other absolutely evil.

Compassion means desiring to help the poor. There is no doubt about that. But compassion takes many other shapes and forms, doesn’t it? And what we see as lacking compassion, sometimes may wholly include it.

The woman anointing Jesus’ feet with oil was exhibiting compassion, even though the disciples did not see it. Yes, it is compassionate to help the poor. But it’s also compassionate to tend to the needs of someone confronting death, be they rich or poor.

The common denominator is compassion. And compassion should be what grounds us and all we do.

There should be no doubt that Jesus cared for the poor. His explanation of why he came, what his ministry was all about, was this after all: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” His ministry made it clear he meant what he said.

Yet Jesus, amid this anointing, claims, “the poor you will always have with you.” In other words, you will not win this one completely. We will not eradicate every evil or every example of evil. Don’t be so arrogant as to think that you will. There are some people who truly choose to be poor, or at least do not have the capacity to choose otherwise. Showing-up is all you can sometimes do. Some monks and nuns take the vow of poverty. Jesus did, it seems. Whatever the case may be, it is true – we will always have poor people. We cannot save everyone. This of course doesn't mean we are not expected to give our all. However, without a humble heart that admits to our vulnerability and looks for help outside ourselves and our just our group of people, we will face a bitter battle. Those doing the good work of caring for the poor need to remember the necessity of humility and love. There is no complete victory in the work of compassion. But complete victory should not be the reason we help the poor.

I think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13. "If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing."

The dangerous transition of going from idealism to ideology where we compete our ideologies against another is something Jesus was attempting to guard against in his words to the disciples. It is good to believe in your heart of hearts that the needs of the vulnerable must be at the forefront of what we do. It is good to believe that the way of peace must be tantamount and the way of war must be resisted. It is good to believe that love and compassion must be the basis for all we do, including the government.

Yet when these ideals become ideology, when what I think are the answers become what all must think are the answers, when my ideas of what we need to do becomes the only correct ideas of what we need to do, when adherence to a political philosophy removes the desire for compromise, we enter the realm of ideology. And ideologies and ideologues are dangerous because there are always more than one.

When I was a Religious Studies student in college, I learned about the fancy phrases orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy. Some religions fall in line with the orthodoxy category. They focus on correct (ortho) doctrine (doxy), believing the correct way. Christianity is maybe the biggest example of orthodoxy based religion. Other religions fall in line with the orthopraxy category. Orthopraxy means correct practice, practicing the correct things – Five times a day prayer in Islam. Practicing Meditation in Buddhism. Following kosher diet in Judaism. These are examples of correct practice.

I’d like to introduce a third category. Orthospem. Correct hope. I for one believe most people of good will hope, share the hope that children be fed, clothed, sheltered, cared for. I cannot think of many people who see poverty, hunger, homelessness, neglect, exclusion as good things. Virtually all of us share the hope that these wrongs will be made right. At least we should.

This is what I mean by correct hope. We should stay centered in on the correct hope that no one goes hungry, homeless, poor, neglected, excluded. Too often we move too quickly to the solutions and stay centered together on the problem, taking it in, contemplating it as a community, and seeking common purpose. When go quickly to the solutions, disagreements on the best solutions naturally arise and soon become the focus.

Compromise and working together are so essential. But compromise and working together takes practice. It takes sitting together and contemplating the hopes we share, namely that there is as little poverty, hunger, homelessness, neglect, exclusion as possible.

If we sit with our shared hopes, if we sit and reflect on the real people being effected by poverty, hunger, homelessness, neglect, and exclusion if we also sit with those being affected by these evils, it becomes natural that we start building the strong foundation upon which we confront those evils.

More than ever, we need to a laser focus on our shared hope, our sitting together with our shared hope in mind and heart.

Focusing on our shared hope leads to humility. I am not the only one who wants less poverty, less hunger, less homelessness, less neglect, less exclusion. Conservatives, moderates, and liberals of good will all want this. And I can learn from others who want the same things. This humility allows us the space and openness and inclusiveness to look honestly at things and admit when something isn’t working, make corrections midstream, and hopefully make it work.

None of us have the market on the truth. None of us is right about everything 100% of the time. None of us in can get what we want 100% of the time. Without humility, without a flexibility that allows for compromise, without a willingness to say what I proposed doesn’t work and what you proposed might, without an open mind and an open heart, we will have more poor people, more hungry people, more homeless people, more neglected, more excluded people.

We have seen the dangers of political rigidity, absolutism, ideological litmus tests. We have seen them throughout history. We have seen them in America in the Religious Right and the extreme elements on the Right. We are seeing them increasingly on the Left as well. We are increasingly becoming two separate and isolated camps that no longer even attempt to meet each other in the middle.

We must stem this tide. And we do this best by doing what we do here. Honing in on our shared humanity and shared hopes, building community on what connects us – the love of God. This is what we need. Let us preach the gospel that without love we are nothing.


One of God’s greatest promises to us is that God will never leave us nor forsake us. God is present with us in sickness and in health, in good times and bad times, in birth and in death, and all those in betweens. That is what helps us to hope and get through it all.

The best thing we can do when we pray is to practice godliness by being spiritually as present with those we are praying for as possible. So as we pray, I ask that you be present with those we hold in God’s light.

For those facing health issues or health procedures, we are present with you and hold you in God’s light.

For those who are grieving losses or are feeling lost and alone, we are present with you and hold you in God’s light.

For those who are impoverished, hungry, homeless, neglected, we are present with you and hold you in the Light.

For those who simply struggling with the daily grind, bored with life, and needing friendship, we are present with you and hold you in the Light.

For those who are feeling the blessing of joy and gratitude, we are present with you and hold you in the Light.

Non-Clinging, Politics, & Jesus

There is a Buddhist teaching I am thinking about a lot these days. It is called anupadana. It means non-clinging, or non-attachment. It is based on the idea that clinging or grasping onto things or ideas, holding on to them too tightly, is an obstacle to being all we can be. Upadana, clinging or grasping onto things or ideas, prevents us from individually and collectively applying the truth of love in our lives.

Buddhism lays out four forms of clinging or grasping, four kinds of unhealthy attachments.

There is senses-based attachment. Renowned Buddhist teacher Buddasa states, this means “clinging to attractive and desirable sense objects.” Our six senses – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking – attach onto what is pleasurable. We want to see beautiful things, we want to hear beautiful sounds, we want to smell fragrant things, we want to taste delicious food, we want to touch pleasant things, we want to think good thoughts. At a certain level, these desires cannot be avoided especially for laypersons. But when these desires become ingrained and habitual and harmful, so much so that we desire nothing else but the good things we want and become averse to all else, then we have deep suffering and others around us experience it too.

The other form of unhealthy attachment is an unhealthy attachment to self. Now, I talked about this a few weeks ago, and this Buddhist view is complex. But basically, an unhealthy attachment to self means being focused on my self solely, seeing that self is disconnected and separate from other selves and not effected or influenced by other selves. One current presidential candidate is a perfect example of what the Buddha meant here.

The last two examples of unhealthy attachment are the two I want to focus a little more on as we ponder this crazy political season in our country. I think the two examples of unhealthy attachment have clear examples in our political and cultural discourse. They show the nature of unhealthiness in our clinging and grasping and unhealthily attaching ourselves to things and views.

So the first of these two unhealthy attachments is the attachment to rites and customs. Buddhasa again states, “This refers to clinging to meaningless traditional practices that have been thoughtlessly handed down, practices which people choose to regard as sacred and not to be changed under any circumstances.” Now, clinging to rites and customs doesn’t happen just with old traditions and customs. Grasping onto new practices that play more on emotion, onto ways of doing things just because it is easy and it is what we’ve always done or now 
in certain situations, this can be unhealthy.

There are a couple examples of this in our current political carnival ride. First, I think of the over reliance on the protest march as the go-to form of resistance to things we don’t like. It seems to me this is a newer example of clinging to rites and customs. Now, this is not to say protest marches don’t work. They certainly were effective during the Civil Rights Movement. And when they are large enough, they can visually represent to the country and the world just how big the problem is. I engaged in a few protest marches myself, namely against the Iraq War when a seminary student in New York City. However, I would dare say the protest march is an example of a custom that is almost cliché because it is often all that is done. 

To me, the most effective way we can confront issues like gun violence and police/community conflict is to get the two sides in the same room, engage in an extended time of silent prayer and meditation, and then have a facilitated, heart to heart discussion.

Another example of clinging on to rites and customs is the rituals and traditions that surround political conventions and speeches and races. We hear the same old trite and cliché phrases and images. We experience the same old propping up of the same old tropes and oversimplifications. The same old revered sacred cows that are off-limits for discussing honestly. The lack of gray, the lack of nuance, the abundance of clichés and trite words, the lack of being real in speaking of these things is an example, I think, of unhealthy attachment to customs and rites. 

Thankfully, we see in many young people a healthy questioning of, a healthy resistance to this clinging on to tradition and customs. Yes, sometimes this makes us uncomfortable. And sometimes, the manner the questioning and resistance takes is not always wise or exhibit long-term thinking. But young people do often teach us that we need to be mindful of how we older generations talk about things and how we ignore things, and that we do it often unconsciously. They help us to break our unhealthy attachment to meaningless traditions and customs and language. 

The last example of unhealthy clinging onto things and ideas is to me an even larger issue. And that is the unhealthy clinging to ideas and views. 

Ideological rigidity. Absolutism. These two things get at what the Buddha meant. 

When we pose a litmus test that decides who is in and who is out, without any knowledge of a person or their background or their story, but with a lot of preconceptions and grudges – this is harmful. When we declare unless you agree with me 100% of the time, unless you meet my definition of who a progressive or a conservative is, you are off my list – that is harmful. When we declare that this is the way it needs to be no matter that others think differently and no matter it is a democracy where others get to disagree – that is harmful. 

This is this the stuff of absolutism. Religions are not the only entities prone to absolutist thinking. Political parties, figures and supporters are also prone to absolutist thinking. We are seeing the result of it in our government as we speak. We cannot let it become the norm in us. We cannot let our differences, even our theological and political differences, become an obstacle in building the beloved community.

A few weeks ago I mentioned that indeed Jesus was an extremist. Indeed he was an absolutist. But he was an extremist, an absolutist for the only absolutism allowable – the absolutism of absolute love. Here is the paradox though, the absolutism of love is one where no one is turned away, where the last are first, the least the most cherished, the lost found and lifted up. The absolutism of love is one where the image of God we all share is what we look for first and seek to see into fruition. The absolutism of love rules out any ideological idolatry, any extremist hate, any hateful demagoguery either religious or political.

But love is a practice. It is not preaching. It is not prophesying. It is not politicking. Love means practicing. What I mean by practice is spiritual practice. It is a spiritual practice that helps us overcome unhealthy attachments and clinging to things and ideas and helps us live free and unhindered. Jesus offers us a powerful example. 

Jesus shows us what living a life of non-attachment means. In a perfect example of non-attachment in just three words, Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” What’s more, he did just that despite the horrific violence against him. What enabled this?

All through the gospels, we see Jesus getting away from all the madness and the chaos to silently sit with his loving Father. We saw a pretty typical example of this in our reading today. Jesus does the Work, being heart and hand of God here and now, but knows that breaking away from the barrage of stimuli and stress. He shut off the noise and the negativity by finding a quiet place and sitting with God.

Boy, do we need to follow Jesus’ example even more these days.

Jesus also prayed with his fellow Jews in synagogues and silently walked and dined and sat quietly with his disciples. I should say here, that, no we don’t see in the gospels any specific mention of Jesus sitting intentionally silently with his disciples. The gospels are about Jesus’ actions and teaching. But no doubt Jesus and his disciples, like with any group of friends that journey together and share a lot of time together, I am sure there were times they just sat together or walked or ate together and soaked in the calm and peace of no-words and silent camaraderie. The weariness of sojourning and travel by itself surely would lead them to simply stop and rest in the quietude of God for a little bit. That is what in essence the practice of mindfulness is – stopping and resting in the quietude of God. It is as natural of dropping down after a long day and just vegging for a little bit.  

The practice of silently sitting with God, not just individually, but as a community, a common unity, sitting silently with a God who is love and breathing the breath of compassion– we need this too in these troubling days. 

Call it prayer or mindfulness, meditation or contemplation, the point is sitting silently, with God, listening to the still small voice of the Spirit within. We need it individually, yes. But we need it even more communally. It is what church needs to begin being centrally about. It is what people need to join to create and continue in. The Beloved Community finds continuity, renewal in those quiet moments of sitting together and seeking God’s face together.

That is why we are here. Let us follow Jesus’ model. Let us practice non-attachment by finding a quiet place and practicing quiet and let us do the same together, basing the Beloved Community in the calm and simplicity of Divine Love. From this a Compassion will exude and transforming hearts one breath at a time.

Absolutism is Not Progressive or Revolutionary

I know what absolutism is and feels like. I grew up in a religion that owned it. I was taught early on if a person didn't think, believe, declare the same faith as we did, they did not fully belong and were bound for hell. Yes, they had a choice. They could join us or go to hell - literally.

We are seeing this kind of absolutism at play in some of Bernie Sanders supporters today.

But it must be made clear - absolutism is not progressive or revolutionary. It is actually regressive and reactionary. It is also exactly what radical Republicans want both from us and for themselves. They want us to be absolutists so in a battle of absolutes they win - and surely they will win.

What can be more progressive than to see we do not own the truth but can sit down, learn from each other, and construct a platform together that speaks to our hopes and dreams for the nation? What can be more revolutionary than to say we will see the best in each person, even those we hate, those we see as our enemy, those we believe are worthless, including - or better said, enveloping - the powerful?  What can be more radical than forgiveness?

If the practice of empathy, interpathy, compassion, forgiveness, non-rigidity, and inclusion are not included, we are not talking revolution or progressivism but old-school absolutism. It is Goldwater saying, "extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice." It is George Wallace saying, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." It is Vietnam War supporters shouting at protesters, "my country, right or wrong." It is Vietnam War protesters shouting at soldiers coming home, "Baby killers!"

Bernie Sanders has repeatedly called his movement a "political revolution." However, I think some, though thankfully not at all most, hear cultural revolution instead of political. They are not satisfied with 90% political capitulation to Bernie Sanders' platform, which they got. They want not just 90% political capitulation, but 100% cultural capitulation, it seems. They want Hillary Clinton to make it completely obvious that she "Feels the Bern." I am not sure what her meeting that litmus test would look like. But they know, and she has to pass that cultural test or else... And in this case, or else Trump.

Make no mistake, one does not have to be religious to be an absolutist. The Cultural Revolution in China was full of card-carrying atheists who nonetheless mowed down those who didn't adequately exhibit devotion to Mao and his brand of communism. The Cultural Revolution was an astoundingly horrendous event. It began with a sense of idealism, civic spirit, loyalty to a leader, and patriotism. It ended with ruined lives, enslaved lives, dead lives. It really saddens me and surprises me that in those protesting Bernie Sanders calling for unity today I saw small sprouts from the same dangerous seed that bloomed the Cultural Revolution.

These are dangerous times. We are at the precipice of electing a man with dictatorial ambitions, plans, and persona to the presidency of the U.S. He wants to be king.

The forgers of our Constitution constructed it to guard against the only operative absolutisms they knew - mob rule, absolute monarchy and the Church. They instituted a representative democracy, checks against the executive branch and a separation between church and state. But I am sure they could not imagine the kind of ideological absolutism behind things like Communism, Nazism, Fascism, and Trumpism. They also could never envision Social Media and the kind of compartmentalizing of people and groups that so easily results from it. They presumed debate and dialogue and meeting the other side in the competitions of ideas. We are not seeing that much these days. And we certainly did not see it earlier today in Philadelphia when supporters of Bernie Sanders booed Bernie Sanders.

What the Founders could not see, we must see and guard against. The near to all out absolutism we are seeing exhibited is dangerous and must be resisted.

All of this is to say: Yes, Hillary Clinton may seem to represent "Same ol, Same ol" to you. I agree in many ways she does (though the most progressive platform in decades suggests differently). But isnt' Same ol, Same ol better than the Neo-Putin style dictatorship that we are so dangerously close to letting be elected?

Politics: America's New & Favorite Cult

Have you noticed that politics in America is becoming more a religion than a means to govern? Politics is no longer a means to an end, but the end, the aim, the goal. It is no longer how will this political party and it representatives help us build at a better place, it is how this personality-politician will win, fix it all, and make us feel better.

Faith in and devotion to personalities has replaced researching policy and voting based on what best aligns with one's view of government. Instead of seeing politics as the art of deliberately building a platform on which to build a better government and place, we see it as supporting the personality who we like the most and/or who thinks 100% just like we do.

We see this most clearly in the illogical, post-primary devotion to Bernie Sanders, what I will call the Bernie or Bust Party.

I speak as a primary Bernie Sanders supporter. I truly felt and feel that his social democratic philosophy and platform is what this country needs. We need a complete restructuring of our political and economic systems. (Bernie is somewhat disingenuous when he says "political revolution." He also wants an economic revolution.) While I liked Bernie's politics, I was not enthralled with his style and personality. He seemed too gruff, too inflexible, too masculine as a campaigner though I did see the compassion in his views. Plus, his politics and philosophy align with mine so I supported him.

However, he lost. He lost by millions of votes. Yes, it is clear the DNC was not neutral, and behind the scenes supported Hillary Clinton, but this did not decide how people would vote.

I thought Bernie Sanders was wise to hold out in endorsing Hillary Clinton. He was also wise and savvy in getting 90% of his platform to be enacted as the DNC platform. Bernie supporters, we got 90% of what we wanted. No, we did not get Bernie, but we got 90% of our platform. Because of that 10% we didn't get, we are going to vote for Donald Trump (and voting for a third-party means a vote for Trump)!? 

Now, if you disagree with the DNC platform, than sure, vote for someone other than the Democrat. But then I question your real support for Bernie Sanders who ran as a Democrat (not as a Greener) and because 90% of what he supported, Hillary Clinton demonstratively, via the DNC platform, supports.

These 10-Percenters, the remaining Bernie-Or-Busters, make it clear to me that for them it is less about the politics of Bernie Sanders than it is the personality of Bernie Sanders. It is less platform alignment than quasi-religious-devotion. This is very dangerous. It would be dangerous if we had the average Republican running for president. But it is especially dangerous considering we have a by-excuse Republican with dictatorial ambitions. Trump is running to be America's version of Putin. Is a 10% difference enough to give the reigns and the nuclear-code to Trump?

Or is it merely anger? Anger is no excuse for stupidity.

For Bernie-or-Busters, there is not enough fear of what a Trump presidency would mean. Yes, he might break the system, but he might also nuke the whole world in the process. He might also enact racist laws that will make our current crisis with police violence much, much worse and our current immigration crisis even worse as well. Is this a risk we are willing to take?  Is it not implicitly racist to know that a racist might win the presidency and then help that happen? 

The lack of logic, the reign of feelings, the worship of personalities on both sides all point to American politics new reality. American politics has become America's civic cult. A cult is defined like this:

We enter very dangerous territory when the focus of government becomes personality and personalities at the expense of the art and craft of politics, which is the art and craft of compromise. This focus on personality and personalities goes both ways. Voting for or against someone solely because of their personality, based on whether you like him or not, is not how democracy is supposed to work. Platforms and legislation is supposed to matter more than merely the personality proposing it. Why? Because in a democracy it is "We" (implied by legislation) not "me" (implied by people proposing it). 

In a democracy, a person running for election is running as a people's representative. We are electing them to be a stand in for us. A personality cannot, does not best represent a people. Proposals, legislation, building support for that legislation best represents a people.

If Bernie-or-Buster really believe it is about the political revolution and not about Bernie, then how can you not support the product of Bernie and the revolution - 90% of what you want in the DNC platform!? The DNC candidate for president is the primary mouthpiece for that platform and the legislation it desires. How can you not support the centerpiece the revolution helped create?

In America, politics equals legislating and legislation. No, legislating and legislation is not as sexy as a million dollar campaign ad or interviews on Fox News with attractive newspeople. No, legislating and legislation is not as alluring or personality-driven as preaching a speech. But in the end, it is legislating and legislation that makes the most difference. It is legislating and legislation that decides whether we as a nation become better or more bitter. That is why political platforms are so important. Getting 90% of what you want should mean more in how you vote than the 10% of what you didn't get or your personal anger over who won and lost.

It is the legislation, stupid!

The Common Fountain of Grief

O, this violence. O, this division. When will it stop. Will it kill me, someone in my family? Will it kill this country, our communities, our collective life?

After falling asleep earlier than usual Thursday evening, I woke up early Friday morning. I had a nightmare. It was so disturbing I could not get back to sleep. So I went downstairs, and turned on the TV. Then I heard the news of a real, living nightmare. I did not get back to sleep.

I must be honest, these past few years and up till Dallas, I have been really torn. On one hand, I realize how important police officers are to our collective lives. I realize the sacrifice they make and the difficulty of the job. I worked with officers in the ER when I was a resident chaplain and witnessed firsthand their professionalism, their sense of duty, and their dedication. In my role here, there are members of this community that are or have been police officers and whom I really respect and admire. I think of Dan and Dane and Paul. We can not underestimate the role they play in our civic life. And 98% of the time that role is a positive one and we should never forget to thank our police officers for the work they do, for the protection and service they offer, and for the peace they seek to make. They are trying to maintain law and order without which society cannot function.

On the other hand, as someone who grew up with Black neighbors, who played on sports-teams through middle school with Black teammates, who has known deep friendships with Black people, who has intensely studied the Civil Rights Movement and sees Dr. King as a primary spiritual teacher, I feel a profound sense of loss when it comes to the crisis of young Black men being disproportionately killed in confrontations with police officers.

I cannot help but state that it is real. There is data to prove it.

In a recent study that looked at thousands of use-of-force episodes from police departments across the nation, it was shown that "African-Americans are far more likely than whites and other groups to be the victims of use of force by the police, even when racial disparities in crime are taken into account." Behind this, is what researchers and psychologists call "implicit bias." We all have implicit bias, Black or white, but it is extra deadly when it involves stress, confrontation, weapons, and power dynamics (police officers have it - power - and the person pulled-over and/or being questioned does not).

Now, we must be honest. It is all very complicated. There are many factors to be considered and not all of them related to just issues with the police. There are factors of poverty, family dynamics, urban blight and decay, not to mention drug addiction and Black on Black crime. There is a long history and deep division dating back to slavery, a wound still never fully healed.

Yet, we must not avoid the truth – there is a problem rooted in a lack of rapport, trust, and common ground between the Black community and Police. It is a centuries old problem. And it is a problem we must be address honestly and compassionately.

The atrocity in Dallas has, however, caused me to look deeper and see some things I hadn't considered before. I offer you some of these insights.

First of all, I see more and more that social media is not a complete help here. Yes, it has brought some things to light that otherwise would remain mostly in the dark, and it has us talking. However, I worry that the nature of our talking and our reactions, via Social Media, is not always helpful.

In hindsight, I saw this in my self Thursday. It is too easy to be effected by Group Think. It is too easy to want to feel part of the discussion, even if it is not really a discussion. It is too easy to put our two cents out there and to do it too quickly. It is all too easy, isn't it? But it is not really all that helpful, in the scheme of things. It might make us feel good, or others who think like us feel good. On some occasions, yes, it may give others insight. But it is compassion we need more of these days. Insights and insightfulness, this is good. But these are a dime a dozen. We need real, persistent, active compassion, with less speaking and more listening, more than anything else.

Words are not going to do it. Phrases and memes are not going to do it. Facebook posts are not going to do it. Protests are not going to do it.

Sitting together is. A sitting together that begins with meaningful silence and a sincere connection to our common humanity.

I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to bad habits in regard to Social Media. My sin is Facebook. I try to use it well as a citizen and as a minister. But I sometimes fall short. I sometimes fall prey to the groupthink and verbosity it too easily proffers. I sometimes simply add more fleeting words to a sea of fleeting words when what we need is a small pond of reflection and quiet to look deeply at ourselves and our connections to others.

And so I am taking a break maybe even a permanent break from Facebook. The temptation to be too hasty and quick to speak instead of deliberative and wise with my words is too great. And Lord knows we need more deliberation and wisdom.

The other thing that really hit me as I contemplated the tragedies is this: what we really need is to grieve and to do so together. If there is one thing I have learned in my seven years as a hospice chaplain and here as minister amid times of grief is that there is no more common a denominator than loss and grief after loss.

The mother of Philando Castile, the young Black man killed in St. Pauls, Minnesota Wednesday is grieving just as profusely and profoundly and will continue to do so as the mother of Patrick Zamarripa, the Dallas officer killed in the ambush Friday morning, is. Their grief is a mothers grief, the deepest grief one can know. And as Bono of U2 reminds us, "no one cries like a mother cries for peace on earth."

What we need more than anything in our collective American life is to grieve together. To experience the sense of loss and pain of the other and see how it is like our own. We need to do this more than quipping out slogans however true they may be. We need it more than protests or counter-protests, no matter how sincere or real the issues are.

Having sat through a number of Bereavement Groups, I can tell you there is nothing as powerful and healing and unity-building as sharing in the reality of our shared grief. We need to do this as a nation. We have needed to do it since the Civil War, the end of slavery, and Lincoln's assassination. We've missed opportunities all along the way since, especially after the deaths of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy. I hope and pray that we do not pass this chance up. We are all grieving the loss of young men who died much too young at the hands of a gun. Let us do it together. And let it begin to heal our wounds, the ones that are still open, festering, and vulnerable. It may be the last chance we have. As MLK reminds us the choice is not between nonviolence and violence but between nonviolence and nonexistence.