Monthly Archives: January 2006

God is in the argument

Today I have been reading in Introduction to World Religions, consulting the sections on African traditional religions for this week’s sermon. But while I was having tea this afternoon, I flipped to the section on Judaism, and read this:

The Talmud is at pains to blur any distinction between holy and profane. Even more striking is that it is not concerned with answers. It is far more concerned with the process of answering them. One of its most celebrated passages captures this tendency and is worth citing at length:

On that day, Rabbi Eliezer put forward all the arguments in the world, but the sages did not accept them. Finally, he said to them, ‘If the halakah is according to me, let that carob-tree prove it.’

He pointed to a nearby carobtree, which then moved from its place a hundred cubits. They said to him, ‘One cannot bring a proof from the moving of a carob-tree.’… [Two more miracles were performed by Rabbi Eliezer in a bid to have his argument accepted.]

Then said Rabbi Eliezer to the sages, ‘If the halakah is according to me, may a proof come from heaven.’ Then a heavenly voice went forth, and said, ‘What have you to do with Rabbi Eliezer? The halakah is according to him in every place.’

Then Rabbi Joshua rose up on his feet, and said, ‘It is not in the heavens….’ [Deuteronomy 30.12. Rabbi Joshua goes on to explain that since the Torah has already been given on Sinai, we do not need to pay attention to a heavenly voice.]

Rabbi Nathan met the prophet Elijah. He asked him, ‘What was the Holy One, blessed be he, doing in that hour?’

Said Elijah, ‘He was laughing, and saying, “My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.” ‘

Talmud, Bava Metsia 59B

In other words, God’s children are grown up enough to argue with him. For the rabbi it is even a responsibility. In this sense, the Talmud captures something essential not just of the historical period, but also of the ongoing life of Judaism: God is in the argument, and he [sic] may well be found in the delight of vigorous human discourse.

pp. 285-286, Introduction to World Religions, Christopher Partridge, general editor (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2005; U.S. edition of The New Lion Handbook: The World’s Religions, 3rd edition).

“God is in the argument.” I can agree with that, although I’d argue with the Talmud about the reason for agreeing: I don’t feel the need to accept that because the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, we can therefore ignore a heavenly voice; I’m happy simply to challenge the notion of God’s omniscience, and to advocate for the possibility that humanity has matured enough to be able to argue with God. Nor is saying “God is in the argument” sufficient; there’s more to religion, and humanity, and divinity, than argument. Nonetheless, I find myself convinced by the idea that God is in the argument.

Those Brits…

You, too, can calm traffic in your own home town. If you’re a Brit, you might try placing a lovely 3-piece living room suite in your road. No, I’m not kidding. According to the BBC:

Initially the street was legally closed, to allow the setting up of this outdoor living room, including such middle-England touches as a standard lamp.

It was then re-arranged to allow traffic to pass through, but Mr Dewan says the reactions of motorists showed how motorists expect nothing to stand in their way.

“A driver of a 4×4 didn’t so much disapprove – he was too crazed and violent for that. He seemed to be made psychotic by the idea that roads could exist for anything other than him to drive on,” he says….

It’s this sense of entitlement that he says he wants to challenge – leaving a 4×4 blocking half the street is called parking but a couple of chairs and a magazine rack put in the same place is seen as a senseless provocation.

Here in the boring old United States, the same impulse –to make our cities liveable and enjoyable places — drives what’s called “New Urbanism,” which so far is the province of only a few forward-thinking urban designers, architects, and real estate developers. Pragmatists that we Americans are, we try to design good solutions for the future; those crazy Brits just engage in performance art. On the other hand, maybe the Brits have a good idea: perfomance art done now might make cities of the future into places where cars and pedestrians can co-exist on the same streets, and have fun at the same time.

In fact, here in New Bedford, when Home Depot goes to demolish the historic Fairhaven Mills building to put up their new “category killer” store (a store which will add an insane amount of insane traffic to that street) — maybe someone should set up a beautiful living room suite. You know, a sort of performance art piece in front of the bulldozers — photograph the bulldozers running over a dining room table on the way to the mill building — show the photographs at the New Bedford Art Museum. It would be a hilarious artistic statement about what the ironically-named Home Depot really does to our home city.

Just thinking out loud… feel free to steal this idea….


Something about winter makes me crave pancakes. Usually, they’re a weekend food. But some years, like this year and last year, I’ll eat pancakes every day. Last year, I’d get up fifteen minutes early every morning so I could make pancakes before going to work. Not only would I eat pancakes every day for breakfast, sometimes I’d make pancakes for dinner. Then when spring came I just stopped eating pancakes altogether. Until winter rolled around again this year….

It must be the fat; many animals crave fat in the cold dark months. Squirrels eat nuts (also full of fat); I eat pancakes. When I make pancakes myself, they tend to have even more fat: I just took one off the frying pan, and when I cut it with my fork, the fat glistened in the light. Mmm.

For some people, pancakes are an excuse to eat maple syrup, another winter food. But I don’t use maple syrup on pancakes. Sometimes I put some fruit in them — this evening, I added frozen cranberries grown in Freetown, the next town north of here — but I never use sweetener of any kind in or on my pancakes. It’s not the sugar I crave, it’s the fat.

There’s nothing like biting into a pancake hot off the griddle, the wheat flour providing just enough sweetness, the springy texture, and above all the lovely taste of hot grease. It doesn’t even matter what kind of grease: I’m protecting my arteries so I use olive oil, not butter. The pancakes still taste wonderful to me. My partner Carol gets her winter grease from fried squash seeds. I am not as fond of squash seeds as she is, but I suppose everyone has their own preferred way of ingesting winter grease.

Early spring will bring odd foods like dandelion greens and fiddleheads, foods that seem so unappetizing right now, but in a few months, as days get longer and warmer, I know I will crave them — the bitterness of dandelion greens, the slightly itchy texture of fiddleheads. For now, just give me pancakes.

Why church administration is important, 2

This is the second part of a series on how church administration can be a ministry.

Administering for safety should obviously start with physical safety. But physical safety covers far more than one might think. If I were to develop a preliminary checklist to be used by ministers specializing in administration, I would include at least the following items:

  • Emergency evacuation plans in place
  • Regular safety inspections of building
  • Building accessible to persons of all physical abilities
  • All volunteers trained in basic safety procedures
  • All employees trained in basic safety procedures
  • All employees screened for criminal backgrounds
  • Regular maintenance schedule for building
  • Budget includes reserves for emergencies
  • Sexual harassment policy in place
  • Behavior standards policy in place
  • Volunteers working with minors screened for appropriateness
  • Standards of behavior for church life made clear
  • Alcohol and tobacco banned or severely limited at all church events

Of course, this list is incomplete; every church will have to add to this list depending on its own unique situation. You will notice that this list covers only physical and, to an extent, emotional safety. And it should also occur to you that, for many churches, checking off the items on this list could occupy an administrative minister for well over a year!

Once physical and emotional safety has been adequately secured, the next step for the administrative minister is spiritual safety. “Spiritual safety” might sound a little vague, so I’ll try to define it more precisely. It’s easiest to start by looking at what happens when there’s a lack of spiritual safety.

In a church that lacks spiritual safety, individuals may belittle or even attack other individuals based on spiritual matters. In my tradition, Unitarian Universalism, this most often happens in the area of theology. Even though we are a non-creedal group with no set theology, individuals may feel that it is acceptable to attack those who may hold a different theological position. A classic example is when someone who holds to a non-theistic theology attacks or belittles someone who holds to a more theistic theology. In my tradition, this results a kind of pseudo-creedalism antithetical to our professed spiritual core and an attendant general lack of theological conversations. Other traditions, and other specific churches, may experience a lack of spiritual safety in other ways. But the net result of a lack of spiritual safety is that matters of religion and matters of the spirit are suppressed within church life, to the point where the church can lose all semblance of a religious institution.

A lack of spiritual safety also typically results in the same kind of anxiety that can result from a lack of physical or emotional safety. When you don’t feel physically safe in a church building, you may feel anxious because you feel as if you have to sit on the edge of your chair, ready to bolt in case something bad happens. When you don’t feel spiritually safe in a church, you may feel anxious because (metaphorically speaking)you’re sitting on the edge of your spiritual chair, ready to bolt in case you’re attacked.

As an administrative minister, how do I create an environment that is spiritually safe? Obviously, first you have to take care of the physical and emotional safety; if someone thinks they’re going to be hurt by the building, or sexually harassed, they’re not going to have any energy for matters of spirituality and religion. Assuming those issues have been taken care of, standard administrative practices suggest that spiritual safety can be addressed by training, logistics, and scheduling. Train key volunteers in how to address spiritual matters; in my tradition, small group ministry training or training in active listening would be good places to start. Next, schedule times and places where persons can address spiritual matters with the help of the trained volunteers. Finally, when a significant percentage of persons have been affected by the first two steps, look at how spiritual matters can be incorporated into every part of church life using those people who have been affected; thus, budget discussions should become spiritual discussions, which would become possible if even one or two members of the Finance Committee had participated in safe spiritual/religious discussions.

Not that creating spiritual safety of the kind I’m trying to outline is an easy matter. Like many matters pertaining to church administration, it requires constant oversight, management, and ongoing attention to niggling details.

To be continued


According to a Washington Post article, Toxic Waters Provide ‘a Snapshot of Evolution,’ from Monday, January 23, New Bedford harbor is now swarming with Killifish. This is remarkable because New Bedford Harbor, designated as a Superfund site, is so polluted by PCBs that almost nothing can live there:

The waters of New Bedford Harbor, Mass., sparkle on sunny days. But beneath the bay’s gleaming surface lies one of the most toxic environments in the nation.

“You’d think nothing, absolutely nothing, would be able to live in New Bedford Harbor,” says Jim Kendall, a fisherman and president of New Bedford Seafood Consulting. “But you’d be dead wrong. Something does live there, and in huge numbers.”

Killifish, three-inch-long saltwater fish common along the Atlantic coast, thrive in these polluted waters…. “Sometimes they’re so thick in the harbor, you could just about walk across on them,” Kendall says….

No one is quite sure how the killifish have managed to adapt to the toxic environment. There are representatives of other species — the article mentions quahogs — living in the harbor, but the killifish are there in great numbers. Why so many killifish?

“That’s the big question,” said toxicologist Mark E. Hahn of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. “It’s what can happen when animals are exposed over generations to high levels of contaminants.” The result goes one way or the other, he said. “The population dies out or it adapts through genetic changes to extreme pollution levels.”

In one way, this is a hopeful story: even with all the toxic sludge we’re pumping into the environment, some organisms seem to be able to adapt. In another way, this is a very worrisome story: the killifish are filled with PCBs, they are being eaten by other animals, and so the PCBs have a new entry point into the wider food chain. I’ve seen lots of Mergansers on the harbor this winter; Mergansers eat fish; the Mergansers are likely getting pumped full of PCBs.

Green Revelation

Carol, being a free-lance writer specializing in ecological pollution prevention issues, is always bringing home the latest environmental publications. Her latest find is Plenty, a glossy magazine with the motto “It’s easy being green.” I opened it to find an article by Liz Galst titled, “Saving Grace: How Evangelical Christians Are Energizing the Environmental Movement.” Galst opens the article like this:

Like the Bible-thumper that he is, the Reverend Rich Cizik [pronounced “size-ick”], tall, lanky, slightly stoop-shouldered, stood in the September heat of midtown Manhattan bellowing into a microphone. His subject was the Book of Revelation, and he was hoping to reach the ears not only of his audience but also of the unconverted who happened to wander by.

“In Revelation,” he thundered against the wind, against an incredible din, “in Revelation we’re told that God — hear this,” he paused, tilting his heavy head forward. “God will destroy those who destroy the environment.”

Preach it, Brother Cizik. The article continues:

“What an amazing statement about the world that God created and cares about!” Cizik continued. “Isn’t it amazing?”

Though he was sweating in a pin-striped suit, Cizik is not your average street preacher. In fact, he has friends on Capitol Hill, friends in the White House…. Cizik is the public-policy voice of the National Association of Evangelicals [the evangelical version of the National Council of Churches]….

And in case you’re wondering whether he’s one of those progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis, author of the New York Times 2005 bestseller God Is Politics, forget about it. Cizik opposes abortion, opposes marriage for same-sex couples, opposes stem-cell research. Cizik is the deepest Republican red.

And yet, he continued on that hot September afternoon, “I have told people, ‘Look, you’ve got to care about this because when you die, God is not going to ask you about how he created the earth’ ” — a reference to the recent public debate on so-called intelligent design — “He’s going to ask you, ‘What did you do with the earth I created?’ “

And may I remind my readers that while these evangelicals are going green, most religious liberals are keeping their environmentalism separate from their religion? Well, wake up and smell the (fair-trade organically-grown) coffee! I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Unitarian Universalists, it’s time for us to go public with our own captivating ecological theology based on the Bible, Emerson, Thoreau, William Carlos Williams, and Sharon Welch. It’s time to quit sniping at each other, quit sitting around and grousing about the sorry state of Unitarian Universalism, and start doing public theology.

Why church administration is important

This is the first part of a series on how church administration can be a ministry.

Church administration is often given a low priority by both clergy and lay leaders. Typically, administrative procedures are borrowed from the techniques of for-profit or non-profit organizations, and it is assumed that those techniques will work in churches without any substantive modification. Indeed, this assumption is probably in large part true: standard administrative procedures used in the business and non-profit world do work quite well in churches.

However, I begin with a different assumption. I assume that every facet of church life should be informed by theology. Therefore, when it comes to church administration, I begin with the assumption that, no matter what the final outcome, there should be a fundamental connection between theology and church life. Note that I am not asserting that church life should be grounded in some abstractly true theology; rather, theology and church life inform each other in a theory-praxis relationship wherein each supports and modifies the other in a sort of co-evolution.

Nor is this merely an academic question for me: church administration is at the heart of my own praxis as a minister. Those who use the language of “call” would say that I, as a minister, have church administration as the central part of my “call to ministry.” Having never heard a “call,” I don’t use the language of “call”; I’d prefer to say that the rest of my ministry grows out of what I do in church administration. But whatever language you prefer to use, church administration is central to who I am as a minister; and so it is that I believe there is more to church administration than what the M.B.A’s teach us.

To find out why adminstration is so important to me, let’s compare administration to preaching. Most people in my Unitarian Universalist tradition consider preaching to be far more important for ministers than administration, because preaching is typically the heart of our worship services, and our worship services are at the heart of our congregations. As a thought experiment, imagine I was serving a congregation where I happened to be the only minister but where for some reason I didn’t preach. Yet though a ministry of administration, I could nonetheless ensure that the congregation heard excellent preaching each week. I could, for example, help reorganize the budget to cover fees for outside preachers, and take care of the logistics and scheduling of outside preachers. Or in another example, I could recruit, train, and support lay preachers, while administering the logistics of scheduling, etc.

That second example, of recruiting, training, and supporting volunteers, brings up a critical point about church administration. Although I’m now a parish minister, I started out as a minister of religious education (MRE). Rather than preaching, an MRE’s central task is making sure religious education classes take place. But whereas a preaching minister can have hundreds of people hear a single sermon, religious education classes work best when they take place in small groups. So an MRE has to make sure lots of small group religious education classes take place, which generally means that the MRE can’t lead every class by him- or herself. Therefore, an MRE has to learn the art of administration so that he or she recruits, trains, and supports volunteers — in short, empowers volunteers — to do the actual face-to-face ministry of teaching. As an MRE, I had to learn how to ministry by administration; and I learned that it is just as effective as direct ministry.

It might help if I talked about a few specific issues so you can see how ministry by administration works. Obviously, since some of the programs an MRE administers serve minors, issues of safety are brought into high relief, due to the legal issues involved. But what I discovered as an MRE is that if I focused my administrative efforts on safety, I noticed a qualitative change in the mood of the congregation throughout all age groups. I think what happened was this: Many churches are not safe places; physically, churches often occupy buildings with serious maintenance issues; emotionally, there has been little attention to issues of emotional safety; and most importantly, spiritually there is often little attempt to create a safe place for people to engage in spiritual exploration.

When the church building, church community, and church “spirit” do not feel safe, it can feel as if the people of the church are, as it were, sitting on the edges of their chairs getting ready to run out of the building if a disaster happens. In church administration jargon, there is a lot of anxiety in that church. In my experience, it’s possible to lower that anxiety substantially with seemingly minor safety features. I have found that the simple act of posting clear, well-thought-out maps showing emergency evacuation routes in each and every room in the church building (including the primary worship space) can lower anxiety to extent that seems hardly credible.

Next installment: More about safety

Winter beach

Drove to Horseneck Beach for a long walk today. I had a desire to walk down the beach and pick up a few shells and not think about anything but sun and sand and waves. A brisk westerly breeze kept me walking quickly until I drew near to the Westport River where the beach was somewhat protected by a low rise of land to the west. I slowed down and started looking at the beach.

A different mix of shells from the beach at Fort Phoenix: Most of the clamshells appeared to be Atlantic Surf Clams, and I don’t think I saw any quahogs. (I saw one clammer working the beach, and I would have liked to have asked her what she was raking in, but she was too busy.) I also found a good number of Blue Mussel (Mytilu edulis) shells, which we haven’t found at all at Fort Phoenix. I picked up two or three clamshells that I couldn’t identify; after looking at the “Marine Organisms Database” on the Web site of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Wood’s Hole, I believe the shells are either Transverse Ark (Anadara transversa) or Blood Ark Clam (Anadara ovalis), both of genus Anadara. It must be a somewhat different ecosystem along Horseneck Beach.

At one point, I saw a Great Black-backed Gull floating on the sea with something quite large in its mouth. I looked through the binoculars to see what the gull was carrying. It was a sort of pinkish color; the gull had to open its bill quite wide to hold onto whatever it was, and at one point it dropped the thing into the water, but quickly snatched it up again. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was, and the gull’s eye glowed a brilliant, mysterious red in the setting sun. At last the gull flew ponderously up into the air, and I could see that it was carrying a Horseshoe Crab with the long tail dangling down. Off the gull flew, presumably to drop the crab onto something hard to break it open.

But mostly I just walked, and didn’t think of anything at all.

The “Rapture”? It’s all about New Urbanism

If you’re like me, at some point in your working life you’ve wound up working beside people who were sure the “rapture” was going to come, where God swept good human beings up into heaven, and left the rest of us (including heretics like you and me) to deal with the calamitous “end days.” I’ve had some great conversations about the “rapture” during coffee break. (My older sister, Jean, has some great stories of rapture-talk in her new book, Rose City: A Memoir of Work.)

And we know the “rapture” is true because it’s in the Bible, in the book of Revelation. Except it’s not. Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of some “rapture” where human beings get swept up into heaven. Instead, God and the heavenly city of Jerusalem come down here to earth, as is told in chapter 21:

2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

This new Jerusalem sounds like the kind of urban paradise New Urbanism talks about, complete with urban agriculture and no cars and lack of crime and even clean power generation:

1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Barbara Rossing, in her eco-theology essay “Alas for the Earth! Lament and Resistance in Revelation 12,” in The Earth Story in the New Testament, points out that most fundamentalists get the “rapture” backwards:

…the issue is to understand how Revelation’s ecological lament takes shape in our own global situation. Escapist scenarios of a “rapture” can only serve to deflect attention away from earth and away from [Revelations]’s critique of imperialism. There is no rapture of people up to heaven in Revelation. If anything, it is God who is “raptured” down to Earth to dwell with people in a wondrous urban paradise (Rev. 21.3; 22.3). The plot of Revelation ends on Earth, not heaven, with the throne of God… located in the center of the city (Rev 22.3) that has come down to earth. [p. 191]

So next time your fundamentalist co-worker asks you if you’re ready for the “rapture,” you can tell them that yes, you are indeed a supporter of New Urbanism.

A later post about a green evangelical Christian